Construction hazardous substances: Solvents

Solvents, often known as VOCs (volatile organic compounds), are used to dissolve or dilute other substances and can be found in many construction products such as paints, paint strippers, thinners and glues. Potentially harmful solvents include dichloromethane (DCM), also known as methylene chloride, 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 should know

Solvents can make you ill by:

Different solvents can affect your health in different ways.  High airborne concentrations of some solvents can cause unconsciousness and death.  Exposure to lower levels of solvents can lead to short-term effects including 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. If you are unsure what solvent your product contains you should check the product label or ask your supplier for a safety data sheet.

What you must do

The Control of Substances Hazardous to Health (COSHH) Regulations say 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 whether it is possible to eliminate the use of solvent by using an alternative method or solvent-free product, such as water-based paint. Consider:

Use this information to assess the level of risk. You are generally at lower risk if you are applying low solvent products 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. Seek specialist help if you unsure about this. Give priority to the greatest risks first.

Reduce harmful emissions: Think about eliminating or reducing solvent risks where possible. Consider:

Control exposure: 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, and ensure that these measures remain in place during use of the product and until any mist or vapour has cleared:

Train: Workers need to know whether the products they are using contain solvents, and how to use the controls properly.  They also need to be aware of the signs and symptoms of ill-health from solvent exposure.

Using paint stripper containing DCM at work is prohibited unless the worker is a competent person who hascompleted and passed the HSE competence training scheme and is certified.  Before purchasing and/or using a DCM-based paint stripper, workers must attend a mandatory training course. Further information is available on HSE’s DCM Competency Training Scheme webpage.

Review

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

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

 
Updated 2021-11-12