Some 350 million metric tons of asphalt are produced each year, mainly for road paving and roofing purposes. And while asphalt has a variety of benefits, those who work with it can be subject to various hazards. For example, asphalt mishaps are responsible for hazards such as explosions and fires. Additionally, asphalt fume inhalation can also lead to health issues, both short and long-term. These are all good reasons to ensure that if you're working with asphalt, you're wearing the proper personal protection equipment, or PPE. The right PPE mitigates risk and helps keep you safe from the hazards of working with asphalt. It's a big part of any job site safety plan, especially one where potentially dangerous materials are mixed and applied regularly.

In this post, we'll take a closer look at asphalt, explain what it is, where it's used, the hazards of working with it, and how to ensure that you stay safe while doing so.

Asphalt 101: What is Asphalt?

Asphalt is one of the most popular materials used in infrastructure and construction projects. Specifically, it is a black, viscous, oil-based liquid that often mixes with other aggregates until it hardens and creates a solid surface. Chances are you drive on asphalt every day, as the majority of the roads, parking lots, and bridges are constructed with this versatile material. Asphalt may also be included on your facility's roof, as it's a common byproduct in roofing materials, especially as it pertains to waterproofing. Once hardened and in place, asphalt can last for up to 20 years before replacement is necessary. It's estimated that there are more than 3,500 asphalt production locations in the United States, which produce a combined total of 350 million metric tons of the product per year. 

Industries that Regularly Use Asphalt

Asphalt is primarily used for infrastructure and construction purposes. In fact, it's estimated that road construction accounts for the majority of asphalt use, where it is mixed with other aggregates to create the asphalt concrete roads that Americans drive on every day. To put this further into context, it's estimated that about 95 percent of the 2.6 million miles of paved roads in the United States were created with asphalt — and this doesn't include roads that are repaved or replaced each year. That accounts for a total of 18 billion tons of asphalt pavement.

Aside from infrastructure, asphalt is also used to create waterproofing products, roofing felt and roofing materials, and it's used as a sealant for flat roofs. 

Key Hazards of Working with Asphalt

There are a few hazards that are associated with asphalt. One is an increased risk of fire or explosions. Another big risk is the inhalation of asphalt fumes. There are also health hazards associated with skin or eye contact. Let's take a closer look at each of these hazards:

  • Fire/explosion: There's a significant fire hazard associated with asphalt due to the high temperatures that it's stored and handled at, and because it's composed largely of crude oil. Because of these high temperatures, it could ignite — especially if it comes into contact with a spark, open flame, or another source of ignition.
  • Fume inhalation: Though no OSHA standard exists for asphalt fumes, breathing in asphalt fumes can irritate the nose, throat and lungs, potentially leading to a sore throat or cough, or more long-term health complications, such as emphysema. Certain asphalt mixes can also lead to dizziness and internal organ damage if they're inhaled. Asphalt inhalation has also been linked to some cancers.
  • Bodily exposure (skin burns): Since asphalt is stored and handled at high temperatures, it's important to keep the substance off of your skin. Failure to do so can lead to serious burns and other skin defects. Additionally, your eyes may also become irritated by asphalt fumes or from asphalt particulate. If asphalt were to come into contact with the eyes, workers should locate the on-site eyewash station and flush the eyes for at least 15 minutes. 

Health Risks

As noted in the above section, exposure to asphalt can lead to a variety of health complications. Inhalation can lead to headaches, dizziness, and fatigue, among other symptoms. Skin exposure can cause burns, rashes, and potentially increase the risk of skin cancer. Throat and eye irritation are also common symptoms of exposure. The good news is that it's easy to prevent any health complications by ensuring that you're wearing the correct PPE. The next section covers what PPE you should don while working with asphalt.

Asphalt PPE: What You Need to Know

Like we said in the above section, you can minimize or even eliminate any health risks by ensuring that you're donning the appropriate PPE. Here's a look at what to wear to keep yourself protected when working with this material:

  • Gloves: Gloves should be thermally insulated to ensure that no asphalt comes into contact with your skin and risks burning or irritating it. For example, cloth or leather gloves won't do the trick, as asphalt can potentially penetrate these permeable materials.
  • Coveralls: Coveralls get their name because they "cover all." And this is important for ensuring that no asphalt comes into contact with any part of your body. If you don't have coveralls on hand, make sure you're wearing a long sleeve shirt and pants to cover as much of your body as possible.
  • Face shield or safety glasses: Eye protection is essential as well when you're working with asphalt. Safety glasses do a nice job of protecting the eyes, but if you want to ensure your entire face is protected, you may consider wearing a full-face shield.
  • Respirator: Finally, the best way to avoid breathing in any of the potentially hazardous asphalt fumes is to wear a fit-tested respirator. Dust masks typically do not provide adequate protection, but a respirator will. It's especially important to have the right respiratory protection when working with asphalt in confined or enclosed areas.

We already covered a big safety precaution in the section above: having the right PPE on hand and wearing it properly to avoid bodily exposure. But there are a variety of other things you can and should be doing on site to ensure proper safety. Here's a closer look at some of these measures:

  • Know your job site: Any job site orientation should include a review of where to find certain emergency safety devices. For instance, you'll want to know where the fire extinguisher is located in the event of asphalt ignition. It's also important to note where the eyewash station is should you need to access it to flush out your eyes. Being prepared and knowing how to react to any potential issue with asphalt is important to ensuring that your site stays as safe as possible. Make sure all workers go through a proper site safety orientation before they're permitted to work on the site.
  • Understand the MSDS / SDS: The Material Safety Data Sheet, or MSDS, helps inform workers of the ingredients of a product as well as the potential health hazards associated with it. This is important to understand for a few reasons. One, asphalt is blended with a solvent in order for it to take on more of a liquid form. However, the solvent(s) that it is blended with often range in toxicity. It's crucial to know what your asphalt mix has been "cut" with, so you know the potential health hazards. The MSDS can help you understand these hazards.
  • Mix in an enclosed space: Try not to mix asphalt in an open kettle. This potentially exposes workers to fumes and increases the risk of a fire.
  • Don't eat or drink anything around asphalt: Have a designated area well away from where asphalt is being mixed and applied so that anything workers consume is unlikely to be contaminated with asphalt or asphalt byproducts. It's also important to ensure that workers wash their hands properly prior to eating anything. Smoking should also not be done around asphalt.
  • Cut asphalt with more health-friendly aggregates: If you're able to, consider mixing asphalt with more friendly aggregates that don’t generate toxic fumes. Combined with wearing the proper PPE, the asphalt will pose even less of a risk. 

Additionally, workers need to be aware of the signs and symptoms of asphalt inhalation or exposure so they can seek proper treatment to resolve any issues before they have a chance to become more severe problems.

As you can see, asphalt can pose some serious hazards to those who work with it. This is why wearing the right PPE and having safety measures in place is so important to protecting workers and overall productivity.