What is toluene?

Many industries use products that contain toluene and workers should be aware of the risks. Protect employees by training them to identify hazards and use proper safety procedures when handling this dangerous chemical.

Toluene is a clear, colorless liquid with a sweet smell used in many workplaces, including construction sites, manufacturing facilities, printing companies, and nail salons. Also known as “methylbenzene,” “phenylmethane,” or “toluol,” this chemical is found in numerous products, such as paints, paint thinners, varnishes, metal cleaners, lacquers, fingernail polish, glues, adhesives, gasoline, fuels, and many others. Toluene is also highly flammable.

The Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) warns toluene can cause health issues when it is breathed, swallowed, or makes contact with eyes or skin. If the proper precautions are not taken when working with toluene, it can cause irritation of the eyes, nose, and throat, headaches, dizziness, and dry or cracked skin. Long-term exposure can cause changes to color vision and hearing, tiredness, difficulty sleeping, slow reaction time, and numbness in the hands. If ingested, toluene can cause kidney and liver damage.

According to OSHA, employers should use substitution, engineering controls, adjusted work practices, and personal protective equipment (PPE) to prevent toluene overexposure. Employers can substitute products that do not contain toluene by examining product labels and safety data sheets (SDSs) to determine whether chemicals contain toluene.   

Engineering controls, such as ventilation, can be an effective way to reduce toluene exposure. OSHA suggests employers make sure there is appropriate air flow to transport toluene away from workers. Employers can also open doors and windows whenever possible, use fans to draw out contaminated air and deliver fresh air to the work area, and ensure exhaust systems are operating properly.

Some work practices recommended by OSHA to minimize the risk of toluene use include:

•    Clean up spills immediately
•    Keep containers closed except when adding or removing materials
•    Use the minimum amount of toluene or product necessary to complete the task
•    Avoid touching toluene-soaked materials and dispose of these materials in approved waste cans
•    Wash hands thoroughly after use
•    Never use toluene near an open flame or sparks
•    When possible, employers can decrease risk by choosing equipment that releases less product into the air

When working with products containing toluene, OSHA suggests workers use personal protective equipment to reduce injuries and illness. Work gloves are essential for safety when hands come into contact with a toluene product. Employers can also provide safety goggles, faceshields, protective clothing, and boots as needed when there is a splash hazard. If airborne exposure cannot be kept below the permissible exposure limit (PEL), protect workers with properly fitted, NIOSH-approved respiratory protection.

Reduce injuries and illness in workers exposed to toluene and other chemicals. Provide the training and safety supplies crews need to stay safe.

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