Health Hazards and Protective Measures

Employers are required to train all workers who use materials containing toluene about the health and safety hazards of toluene, how to recognize exposure to toluene, and the protective measures that apply to the use of toluene in the specific work area.

Health Hazards of Toluene

You can be exposed to toluene by breathing it in, getting it on your skin, getting it splashed into your eyes, or swallowing it.

Symptoms of toluene exposure include: irritation of the eyes and nose; weakness, exhaustion, confusion, euphoria, dizziness, headache; dilated pupils, lacrimation (discharge of tears); anxiety, muscle fatigue, insomnia; numbness or tingling of the skin; dermatitis. Toluene exposure may cause liver and kidney damage.

Toluene affects the central nervous system, eyes, skin, respiratory system, liver, kidneys. Breathing high levels of toluene during pregnancy has been shown to result in children with birth defects and to retard mental abilities and growth. There is evidence that exposure to toluene at work is associated with spontaneous abortion.

High concentrations of toluene, usually from use in a confined space or unventilated area, can cause loss of consciousness, respiratory depression and death. Long term and repeated workplace exposure to toluene affect the central nervous system.

How to Detect the Presence or Release of Toluene in the Work Area

Toluene is used frequently in many work operations involving paint, metal cleaners, adhesives and other products. The safety data sheets provided by the supplier must disclose the presence of toluene, and employers must provide workers with copies of these safety data sheets upon request. Employers must provide workers training and information about a product's potential hazards and how to use it safely.

Many people can smell toluene at levels below established limits. But, if you can smell it, then it is getting into the air.Your employer should collect air samples to determine if you are being exposed to toluene at or above the Federal OSHA permissible exposure limits (PEL).

The concentration of toluene vapors in the work area may be measured by a gas badge (passive diffusion sampler), a solvent vapor tube attached to an air sampling pump, or a direct reading indicator tube. Employers must provide the results of these measurements to workers, their representatives or their health care providers in writing upon request. Employers must inform workers each year of the procedure for obtaining these results. For additional information, see OSHA's air sampling methods.

Methods of Protecting Against Toluene
  • For cleaning and degreasing applications, substitute a water-based material that does not contain toluene.
  • Substitute a water-based paint or adhesive for toluene or solvent based products.
  • Substitute brush, roller or flow application for spray application.
  • Use the smallest amount of the product that will get the job done.
  • Ventilation is the most important protective measure to reduce the inhalation of toluene vapors where safer substitutes are not feasible. Ventilation can be a combination of local exhaust such as spray booths or enclosing and exhausting processes where toluene is evaporating, and room ventilation to capture those vapors that escape containment.
  • Make sure the room ventilation in the area workers are using the material provides the air volume required by your local building code.
  • Spray application should be done in a spray booth with local exhaust ventilation and no ignition sources in the area.
  • If the use of toluene or materials containing toluene causes wetting of the hands, impervious gloves should be used. Toluene is likely coming in contact with workers’ skin if the gloves used to protect against toluene wear out quickly, get holes or become discolored. Neoprene or nitrile gloves are preferred.

Employers who require workers to wear respiratory protection against toluene are required to measure exposure 1910.134(g)(2)(i). If workers may be exposed to toluene, employers must train workers on the specific procedures the employer has implemented to protect employees from exposure to toluene in the work area, such as appropriate work practices, emergency procedures, and personal protective equipment to be used.