WorkSafe NZ has put out a Safety Alert highlighting the serious health and safety risks of using organic solvents in enclosed spaces with poor ventilation and lack of personal protective equipment.

Organic solvents (eg toluene, thinners and MEK) are used to dissolve or disperse other substances.

Organic solvents are used in many construction and manufacturing workplaces. You can find solvents in a wide range of products including: adhesives, degreasing agents, fillers, cleaning products, lacquers, metal cleaners, ink, paint, resins, rust removers, surface preparation products, dry-cleaning products, fuels.

Organic solvents can be found in:

– adhesives (cyclohexane, acetone, toluene)
– paints and lacquers (toluene, xylene, methyl ethyl ketone)
– degreasers (trichloroethylene, perchloroethylene)
– printing (turpentine, white spirits, xylene).

They can enter the body, mainly through inhalation of vapour and through direct skin contact, and into the bloodstream where they can cause adverse health effects.

Short term effects can include headaches, nausea, eyes, nose, throat and skin irritation, disorientation, feeling drunk/high, drowsiness

Long term effects can include mood changes, memory problems, concentration difficulties, tiredness, weakness.

Organic solvents readily evaporate in the air at normal temperatures. Therefore, high levels of solvent vapours can build up quickly in enclosed spaces with inadequate ventilation and when room temperatures rise (eg small rooms or a shed on a hot day). If solvents are also absorbed through the skin as well as inhaled, the total exposure may be much higher.

WorkSafe has guidance on protecting workers from the harmful effects of organic solvents — the Quick Guide is available for download here. To read the full Safety Alert over on WorkSafe website