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Organic solvents

From the Resene paint and decorating problems solver

Under the Health and Safety in Employment Act 1992, if you are an employee, the Act gives you responsibility for your own safety and health at work and employers to provide a safe and healthy work environment.

Organic solvents

Many organic solvents are volatile. They give off a vapour and will evaporate quickly at room temperature. Not all give out a strong smell.

The word toxic is often used when referring to a harmful solvent.

How do you ensure that there will be no ill effects from solvents used in your workplace? The first step is for both employer and employees to know about and read the Safety Data Sheet for each product used.

Safety Data Sheets:

Safety Data Sheets (SDS) should be available at the place of work for all to read. These sheets detail the hazards and set out the precautions for handling the chemical safely.

Consult the SDS carefully.

  • Look to see what the components of the product are.
  • Check out the toxic properties.
  • Follow the safety precautions.

Properties of solvents

Many solvents evaporate and form vapour in the air when containers are left open. Their vapours can be breathed in and lead to health problems.

  • Store solvents in strong containers.
  • Keep containers sealed or stoppered when not being used.

Many solvent vapours are highly flammable. They will readily create an atmosphere in which a fire can start.

  • Work out evacuation routes.
  • Keep evacuation routes free of any cluttering materials.

Not all solvents are flammable. Knowledge of what you are dealing with is vital to the proper methods of handling these and other chemicals. At all times take special care to:

  • Reduce the volume of flammable solvents present as far as possible.
  • Prevent spills and leaks.
  • Exclude sources of ignition such as naked lights, unsuitable electrical equipment, static electricity hazards, hot surfaces and mechanical friction.
  • Reduce the vapour concentration by ventilation/extraction systems.

Health hazards

Solvents can enter the body by three routes:

  • Inhaled into the lungs
  • Absorbed through the skin
  • Swallowed

Inhaling a harmful vapour is the most common route.

Warning signs

The toxic effects of solvents may be noticed immediately, some time later or both.

Acute poisoning:

The first effects are:

  • A light-headed feeling.
  • Slower reaction time.
  • Poorer co-ordination, balance and power of reasoning.

Followed by:

  • Nausea and dizziness getting more severe.
  • Loss of consciousness.

What to do:

  • Remove the person or people away from exposure to the vapour.
  • Check the first aid instructions on the label and SDS.

Chronic poisoning

After years of repeated exposure, the typical later effects are:

  • Mood changes.
  • Tiredness.
  • Weakness.
  • Persistent dermatitis.
  • Effects on the liver and kidney.

What to do:

  • If you believe you are suffering the effects, see your doctor.

Solvents affect the skin

Solvents dissolve the fat contained in human skin and remove the natural protection barrier.

Solvents can cause skin rashes and repeated or prolonged exposure may result in chronic irritant dermatitis.

What to do:

  • Use hand cleansers. Do not wash your hands in a solvent.
  • Have and use properly designed equipment.
  • Wear protective gloves and clothing where necessary.

The risk of injury or disease increases with how long you are exposed to the solvent and how much solvent vapour is in the air.

A good rule of thumb is that the longer the exposure (years) and the higher the dose, the greater the health risk.

Control of harmful solvents

  • Use personal protective equipment.
  • Protect the skin and eyes.
  • Prevent inhalation.
  • Avoid working in a confined space.
  • Store product safely.

First aid

Refer to the SDS for appropriate procedures.

Skin exposure:

  • Remove contaminated clothing, using appropriate gloves if available.
  • Wash contaminated skin with lots of water from a shower, hose or bucket.


To help a victim of over-exposure to solvent vapours:

  • Immediately remove the victim from the atmosphere in which the over-exposure occurred.

  • Keep the victim warm and quiet.
    If unconscious, if breathing is distressed, or if victim is cyanosed (blue in colour):

    • Ensure the airway is open – press the head backwards and lower jaw forwards so that the chin juts out.
    • Place the victim in the recovery position.
    • Support breathing by mouth to mouth resuscitation. Use CPR if necessary.
    • Seek medical attention urgently.


  • If conscious, give plenty of water to drink. Do not cause vomiting.
  • If unconscious do not give anything by mouth. Remove false teeth, clean mouth of solvent, mucus and vomit. Follow instruction for unconscious victims given above.
  • Refer to first aid instructions and the SDS for specific solvents.

Splash protection:

If the solvent gets into the eye:

  • Wash immediately with clean running water, lifting both lids repeatedly while doing so and keeping the eye open.
  • Continue to wash the eye without break for at least 15 minutes. If the irritation still persists after this, seek medical attention without delay.
  • If the affected person is wearing contact lenses, the eyes should be flushed constantly until the person is able to remove these contact lenses.

Resene Paint and Decorating Problems Solver
Learn more about typical painting problems and situations you may find when decorating. Also, understanding paint hazards and essential precautions - putting your safety first!

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