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Exposure to Industrial Solvents: No Joking Matter


By Kevin Guth

Recently, I was on a project site where I observed a few painters removing an industrial coating from their hands and face using MEK. Like the industrial hygiene nerd that I am, I immediately informed them of the hazards of doing such a foolish thing. I instructed them to read the Safety Data Sheet for the material. They both laughed and went about their business. I know this is a routine practice in the industryand it's far from groundbreaking to hear this.

Contact dermatitis

From contact dermatitis (pictured) to skin cancers, dermal contact with industrial solvents can wreak havoc on those who are exposed at concentrations encountered routinely by industrial painters.

Most painting firms that I have encountered concentrate their control efforts on protecting their employees from breathing hazardous chemicals in the workplace. They have comprehensive respiratory protection plans, but their personal protective equipment plans leave a lot to be desired. This revelation is quite unfortunate for industrial painters, as dermal exposure is quite prevalent in the industry, with many deleterious health effects that can result from prolonged exposure. Before you grab that can of industrial solvent to remove paint from your skin, consider the following sobering facts.

Occupational Skin Diseases

According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, “occupational skin diseases (OSD) are the second most common type of occupational disease”1. From contact dermatitis to skin cancers, dermal contact with industrial solvents can wreak havoc on those who are exposed at sufficient concentrations. And these concentrations are encountered routinely by industrial painters who are not wearing the appropriate PPE for the hazard, as well as those who intentionally expose themselves by removing paint from their skin with solvents at the end of the work shift.


While most painters I've encountered have admitted they had a general idea that cleaning up with solvents caused at least skin irritation, not one of them has understood that solvent exposure can contribute to permanent hearing loss. Most of the time, I see a blank stare when I explain this concept to them.

In nontechnical terms, chemicals that are known to cause hearing loss are referred to as ototoxic. If being exposed to hot, loud environments was not bad enough, consider that being exposed to known ototoxic solvents combined with loud environments can increase one’s chance of suffering permanent hearing loss.


Many of the solvents that are used in the industrial painting industry today are known carcinogens. A review of the available peer-reviewed literature on this topic indicates increased cancer risk with exposure to paint/solvents2,3.

In 1989, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classified painting as an “occupationally related cause of cancer”4. Subsequent IARC research presented in 2010 confirmed their findings from the 1989 study.

Armed with these facts, why would one choose to intentionally expose themselves potentially to skin cancer, hearing loss and a host of other cancers? It is clear to me: It is a lack of knowledge of the risks that are associated with the solvents they are working with. There is some good news, thoughwe can control and mitigate the exposures.


There are many different steps that should be followed. Below are few suggestions to mitigate the risk:

  • Prohibit the use of solvents as a means to remove coatings from the skin;
  • Develop a comprehensive PPE written program;
  • Develop a task-specific PPE hazard assessment based on the chemicals of concern;
  • Develop an activity hazard analysis;
  • Select PPE based on the PPE hazard assessment that was conducted by a qualified health and safety person;
  • Perform personal air sampling for the solvents/coatings being used on the job; and
  • Perform comprehensive training.

There are many other steps that can be taken to mitigate this risk. Each project will dictate the specific preventative control measures one must undertake to reduce exposure to industrial solvents. After considering the potential risks associated with the intentional exposure to solvents, I'm sure no one is laughing now.


1. "Skin Exposures & Effects." (n.d.). Retrieved from

2. "Exposures in the painting trades and paint manufacturing industry and risk of cancer among men and women in Sweden." Brown LM, Moradi T, Gridley G, Plato N, Dosemeci M, Fraumeni JF Jr J Occup Environ Med. 2002 Mar; 44(3):258-64.

3. "Mortality and cancer incidence among Swedish paint industry workers with long-term exposure to organic solvents." Lundberg I, Milatou-Smith R Scand J Work Environ Health. 1998 Aug; 24(4):270-5.

4. "Painting, firefighting, and shiftwork." IARC. IARC Monogr Eval Carcinog Risks Hum. 2010;98:1–804.


Kevin Guth

Kevin serves as the Principal for KGC Environmental Services Inc. and is an Assistant Professor at the University of South Florida (College of Public Health- Center for Environmental and Occupational Risk Analysis and Management). For the past 26 years he has provided senior oversight and management of KGC’s most complex industrial hygiene and hazardous waste management projects. Kevin holds a Doctorate in Public Health (Specialty: Industrial Hygiene and Chemical Risk Assessment and Toxicology) from the University of South Florida. He is a Certified Industrial Hygienist (CIH) and certified Project Management Professional (PMP).



Tagged categories: Containment; Environmental Protection; hazardous materials; Hazardous waste; Health & Safety; Health and safety; Industrial Hygienists; Solvent and chemical cleaning; Solvents

Comment from Bob Dahlstrom, (9/12/2017, 11:14 AM)

Thanks Kevin, well written and an important reminder of the dangers of exposure to chemicals and paint. I like the idea to "engineer out and away from the workspace" and dangers including exposure to chemicals. Preventing or making exposure unnecessary when possible can be a very good thing.

Comment from david hopkins, (9/13/2017, 1:43 AM)

It is not just contact by hand cleaning, when painting inside enclosed with inadequate ventilation you might as well be sitting in a bath tub full of solvents. Inside bounded areas is another where solvents can buildup with out warning, wearing shorts and sleeveless shirts ?? is another way to get a toxic overdose manufacturers are employers are guilty of insufficient HSE training. I have been in the industry for fifty years and HSE training is sorely lacking in a lot of areas.

Comment from Lydia Frenzel, (9/16/2017, 5:31 PM)

This is a well written and timely article.I have seen this cleaning in the field since the mid 1970's. You might have expected the practice in southern Louisiana or Texas where macho workers was the theme. But to see it still in practice in 2015's is just willful ignorance. Products are on the market for hand cleaning and paint removal other than MEK. The average worker just doesn't think, when they should. I remember vividly when a MSHA trainer who was giving the annual refresher Health and Safety day to our miners in California, showed burns from MEK when it was clearly a methyl ethyl ketone peroxide burn (the activator in two componenst paints), MEK peroxide will truly burn you.

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