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Construction hazardous substances: Solvents

Solvents, also known as VOCs (volatile organic compounds), are used in many construction products such as paints, thinners and glues. Potentially harmful solvents include toluene, xylene, white spirit, acetone and ethyl acetate. Certain tasks, such as spraying, can produce very high exposures. This page tells you how to control these risks and why.

What you must do

The Control of Substances Hazardous to Health (COSHH) Regulations says you must protect against the risks from hazardous solvents. Follow the Assess, Control and Review model. Pay particular attention to:

Assess

Identify and assess: Identify tasks where potentially harmful solvent containing products will be used. Consider:

Use this information to assess the level of risk. You are generally at lower risk if you are applying low solvent paints with a brush / roller in a well-ventilated space. In contrast, spraying can be higher risk, particularly if working in an enclosed space with high concentrations of solvents and little air movement. Seek specialist help if you are unsure.

Control

Where the risks are judged to be low, simple and inexpensive controls will suffice.  For other tasks, like spraying, you may have to do more. The range of solvent containing products and the tasks you can use these for mean that you must decide on the specific controls you need based upon your assessment of the risks. Take specialist help if you unsure about this. Give priority to the greatest risks first.

Prevent: Think about eliminating or reducing solvent risks where possible. Consider:

Control: Even if you minimise some of the risk this way, you may still need to control solvent risks. Control this by using the appropriate measures below:

Train: Workers need to know how to use the controls properly. They also need to be aware of the signs and symptoms of ill-health from solvent exposure.

Review

Supervise: Ensure that controls, like RPE and welfare, are used by the workers.

Monitor: You may need to check the effectiveness of your controls. This might mean:

What you should know

‘Solvents’ are used to dissolve or dilute other substances and materials. You will find them in many products such as paints, thinners and glues. They include toluene, xylene, white spirit, acetone and ethyl acetate. Solvents can make you ill by:

Different solvents can affect your health in different ways. Some of the short-term effects are irritation of the eyes, lungs and skin, headaches, nausea, dizziness or light-headedness. Some of these effects may also increase your risk of having an accident. There can also be long-term effects on your health from repeated exposure to particular solvents. These may include dermatitis and liver, kidney or neurological diseases. High concentrations of solvents can cause unconsciousness and death.

Updated 2014-09-17