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Many chemical substances that are used to dissolve or dilute other substances and materials are called ‘solvents’. Industrial solvents are often mixtures of several individual substances. 

They can be found under a variety of trade names, some may have different trade names but be the same chemical substance.
You are most likely to be exposed to solvents if you work in the following industries, where they are used extensively: 

  • Engineering
  • Construction
  • Chemicals
  • Printing
  • Rubber
  • Plastics
  • Pharmaceutical manufacture
  • Woodworking
  • Dry cleaning
  • Paint manufacture.

If you do not work in these industries, you can still be exposed, as even in an office there may be solvents used in cleaning.
Solvents enter your body in different ways. You can breathe in vapours and fumes. They can come into contact with your skin, either directly or through solvent-contaminated work clothes, get absorbed into your body and if you can swallow liquid solvents and they directly enter your body. 

If solvents do enter your body there can be short-term effects or long term effects and sometimes death. Different solvents can affect your health in different ways. 

Some of the short-term effects are:

  • Irritation of eyes
  • Irritation of lungs
  • Irritation of skin (dermatitis)
  • Headache
  • Nausea
  • Dizziness
  • Light-headedness.

When you are exposed to solvents, your co-ordination may become impaired, which may increase your chance of having an accident. Unconsciousness and even death can result from exposure to high concentrations of solvent vapours.

The long-term effects of solvents, can have long-term effects on your health. These may include things like dermatitis. Other possible effects on health vary according to which solvent you are exposed to.

In general, the more you know about solvents and the sensible precautions you take, the safer you will be. 

That’s why getting information and training is so important. You can help protect yourself in many different ways:
Make sure your employer provides you with details of the hazards of the particular solvents you use, the precautions to take when you use them, and the procedures to follow in an emergency.

Read the supplier’s safety data sheets and container labels and follow their advice. Ask your employer for clarification if you need to.
Wear any respiratory protective equipment (RPE) which your employer provides. Keep all protective equipment in a clean place. Make sure it is kept clean so it is fit to use. 

Make the most of natural ventilation, where appropriate, by opening doors and windows. Prevent unnecessary evaporation of solvents by using the minimum amount for the job, keeping lids on containers and using sealed containers for solvent- contaminated waste.
Do not leave solvent-contaminated rags lying around. Dispose of them in closed containers.

If possible use solvent-free materials, safer solvents or materials with a reduced solvent content can be used.

And finally, if you are working in confined spaces then you are at a higher risk. Ventilate the area and wear appropriate PPE.
If you believe that your health is being affected by working with solvents, or if you are concerned that adequate precautions are not being taken, you should first approach your supervisor, safety representative or doctor, as appropriate.