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HSE and metalworking fluids

The HSE and stakeholders have agreed to work together to cut cases of work-related ill health, particularly asthma.

Main health risks from working with metalworking fluids

Skin problems – Dermatitis

A serious health concern associated with metalworking fluids is dermatitis. Every year, around 200 cases of contact dermatitis related to exposure to cutting oils and coolants are reported to EPIDERM (European Prevention Initiative for Dermatological Malignancies) - a scheme in which dermatologists report cases of occupational skin disorders. These figures are undoubtedly a very substantial underestimate of the true incidence of skin disease. There are also thought to be risks to the skin arising from exposure to water-mix wash fluids used to clean machined components.

Breathing problems – Asthma

A growing concern is the risk of asthma, extrinsic allergic alveolitis and other breathing problems from exposure to mist from metalworking. Work-related asthma is a significant and growing problem with an estimated 1,500 to 3,000 new cases each year. On average, up to 2003, at least 20 of these cases were associated with exposure to metalworking fluids but it is thought many more cases go unrecognised. There are also thought to be risks of breathing problems arising from exposure to mist from water–mix wash fluids used to clean machined components.

There have been several large outbreaks of respiratory illness in the UK where many workers were diagnosed with respiratory illness as a result of exposure to mist. At one of these sites there was mist from both metalworking and washing machines.

In past decades, work that resulted in repeated exposure to metal working fluids carried an increased risk of several types of cancer. Research has shown that this was due to the use of unrefined oils, which contained carcinogenic substances. Modern neat oils are highly refined and do not pose this risk of cancer.

There is a possibility that carcinogenic substances (polycylic aromatic amines and nitrosamines) may be formed under certain in–use conditions. However, provided metalworking fluids are properly managed, it is unlikely that they will contain significant amounts of these carcinogens. Any remaining risks of cancer will therefore be small, or even negligible, and you are unlikely to need to take extra precautions other than those in these Topic Pages and in e – COSHH essentials, and checking your fluids properly.

These Web Pages were developed with the help of industry experts, representing the fluid and machine suppliers, and trade union and employers’ organisations.

Wrap-Envirowise – a government programme that provides practical environmental advice for business, also produces guidance on metalworking fluids.

Updated 2016-02-25