Solvent and Chemical Safety

Originally published on Aug. 23, 2016

Construction workers must sometimes use solvents or chemicals on the jobsite. Some of these are highly toxic and can be harmful to your health. One large exposure can harm you, but so can several very small exposures over a long period of time. A very large exposure can kill you.

We are exposed to solvents and chemicals in these ways:

  • Breathing in vapors, spray mist or dust. An example would be working with bags of concrete without using the proper personal protective equipment.
  • Absorption through the skin.
  • Ingesting them. This might happen when you are having lunch in a work area where airborne contaminants exist.
  • This could happen with a needle prick or by the misuse of a high pressure washer.

Protect yourself against chemical and solvent hazards by following these tips:

  • Make sure you understand the health and fire dangers associated with the solvent or chemical you are using. Read the label and the Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) for the substance.
  • Before you begin, make sure you know how to safely use and work with each solvent or chemical.
  • If you are using a respirator, make sure the respirator has the proper cartridge to protect you from the solvent or chemical you will be using. Change the cartridge if necessary.
  • Never transfer solvents or chemicals into drinking cups or bottles.
  • Make sure your work area is well-ventilated.
  • Wear the recommended personal protective equipment (PPE), which may include chemical-splash goggles, a respirator, safety gloves, apron, steel-toed shoes or safety glasses with side shields. Be sure the PPE fits properly and that you are trained in its use.
  • Inspect the PPE before use. Look for defects in the equipment such as cracks, missing parts, rips, etc.
  • Don’t smoke or do hot work when near solvents or chemicals.
  • Know the location of safety showers and eyewash stations and how to use them.
  • Wash your hands before eating.
  • Store solvents and chemicals in a safe storage cabinet that is labeled for their storage and located away from combustible materials.
  • Leave your contaminated clothing at work. If you wear the clothes home, you could expose your family to the hazards associated with the chemical or solvent you have been using. Store the clothing in non-sparking containers with lids.

If you experience headaches, nausea or tiredness, or have difficulty concentrating or breathing and are getting clumsy, stop what you are doing and notify your supervisor immediately that you may have been overly exposed to a solvent or chemical. See a physician.

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New Products and Machines

Toolbox Talks often cover the same topics – fall protection, hazard communications, heat stress, ladder safety and personal protection – because it’s easy to get lackadaisical about things that we deal with on a daily basis. So we repeat the basics and encourage you to stay mindful and alert.

What happens when the tools and machines change? Manufacturers constantly come up with new and improved tools and equipment. They may not be built like the ones you’re used to, and may not operate the same way either. The change may be simple, like the shape of a trigger guard. It may make the tool easier to turn on – even when you’re not prepared for it. Or maybe there’s a new procedure to attach cutter or scraper blades. Changing the blades may be dangerous if you aren’t prepared for differences between the old and new models.

Lack of training is the big safety issue. You might think you can figure out how to set up and operate the new equipment yourself. That might work sometimes, but not all of the time. Many of the changes make operation controls or maintenance requirements so different that you need more than intuitiveness and common sense to figure out how to safely operate and care for the new equipment. That’s why manufacturers spend time and money to develop and print instruction manuals and operating guidelines. Injuries to people and damage to machines occurs when you fail to read the instruction manual.

Each year, Construction Pros magazine lists the 50 best new products for the construction industry. Demand is high for products that work faster, safer and more efficiently. Some of these new items will show up on your work site, so you should learn to use and care for them while keeping yourself and your coworkers safe.

Safety issues might include:

  • New pinch points created with new attachments. New milling or sweeping attachments may leave no room for your hands or fingers on side rails or cab columns. Your old machine may have had plenty of clearance between the attachment and the machine; the new one may not. If you aren’t aware of the changes, you may end up with a pinching or crushing injury.
  • Breaking a hollow drill bit on new hollow core drills or tangling vacuum lines you use new vacuum systems can cause injury.
  • Burns and skin rashes from new chemicals used in mastics, fillers and primers. Know what the new chemicals are, and protect yourself with the proper protective equipment. You may need new gloves made of a special material that is resistant to the new chemicals.

Never assume you know how to use, care for or store a new tool, piece of equipment or chemical. Take time to read the instructions.