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Benzene Health Hazards and Workplace Exposure Limits

Benzene is a highly flammable, colorless liquid that evaporates quickly into the air. It may have a light-yellow color at room temperature and has a sweet, gasoline-like odor. Benzene is produced by both natural and man-made processes.

A digital tablet that has the word Benzene displayed.

Benzene is a natural component of crude oil, which is the main source of benzene produced today. Benzene is found in products that are made from coal and petroleum. Lubricants, plastics, rubbers, dyes, and other chemicals can be produced with benzene.

OSHA Standard 1910.1028 (Subpart Z) covers Benzene.

Benzene is harmful to the eyes, skin, airway, nervous system and lungs. Classified as a Group A carcinogen by the EPA, benzene can cause blood cancers, like leukemia. Workers in any industry that uses benzene should read and become familiar with chemical labels and the accompanying Safety Data Sheet for hazard information.

OSHA Standard 1910.1028(j)(3)(i) The employer shall provide employees with information and training at the time of their initial assignment to a work area where benzene is present. If exposures are above the action level, employees shall be provided with information and training at least annually thereafter.

Workers can be harmed by exposure to benzene. The level of exposure depends on the dose, duration, work environment, protection, environmental controls and the nature of the work being done. Individuals employed in industries that manufacture or use benzene may be at risk for harmful exposure levels if proper safety measures are not implemented. Benzene can be absorbed into the body by inhalation, ingestion, or skin contact. Workers are exposed to benzene primarily by breathing air that contains the chemical.

Benzene Hazard Card with basic information and safety hazards.

Short-term exposure to high levels of benzene can cause:

  • drowsiness, dizziness, confusion and headaches
  • nausea, irritability, or euphoria
  • rapid or irregular heartbeat
  • vomiting, tremors and convulsions
  • skin redness and blisters
  • eye, skin, and respiratory tract irritation
  • unconsciousness, or even death

Long-term (chronic) inhalation exposure can cause various blood disorders, aplastic anemia, leukemia, and adverse reproductive effects.

Graphic indicating a health hazard warning.

OSHA sets strict limits on exposure in industrial settings:

Airborne: The maximum time-weighted average (TWA) exposure limit is 1 part of benzene vapor per million parts of air (1 ppm) for an 8-hour workday and the maximum short-term exposure limit (STEL) is 5 ppm for any 15-minute period.

Dermal: Eye contact must be prevented, and skin contact with liquid benzene should be limited.

OSHA Standard 1910.1028(d)(1) The employer shall establish a regulated area wherever the airborne concentration of benzene exceeds or can reasonably be expected to exceed the permissible exposure limits, either the 8-hour time weighted average exposure of 1 ppm or the short-term exposure limit of 5 ppm for 15 minutes.

Exposure to harmful levels of benzene is controlled by limiting evaporation and preventing splashes and spills. Adequate engineering controls (hoods, canopies, ventilation, process enclosure, etc.) should be implemented and possibly coordinated with the use of PPE, if additional protection is needed.

Benzene chemical card listing safety hazard, first aid procedures, fire procedures and spill procedures.

When engineering controls or work practice controls are not feasible or do not reduce exposure to the permissible level, respirators approved for use with benzene are required. Appropriate protective clothing (boots, gloves, sleeves, aprons, etc.) must be worn to prevent skin contact if working with benzene. If splashes to the eyes or face are a potential hazard, then splash-proof safety goggles or a face shield is required.

Benzene is highly flammable and can ignite at room temperature. Store in tightly closed containers in a cool, well-ventilated area away from sparks or flames. Transfer of benzene from one container to another must be done in a well-ventilated area. Transfer only with grounded, non-sparking equipment.

Benzene vapors are heavier than air so vapors may travel along the ground and ignite somewhere away from where it is being handled. Fire extinguishers must be readily available. Eliminate heat and ignition sources such as sparks, open flames, hot surfaces and static discharge. Post “No Smoking” signs. Prevent accidental contact with incompatible materials.

Danger Sign for Benzene that can be displayed in the work area.

Warning signs must be posted at the entrance to areas where exposure to benzene might reasonably be expected to exceed the PEL. All benzene containers should be labeled with the chemical name and hazard information.

OSHA Standard 1910.1028(j)(2)(iii) The employer shall ensure that labels or other appropriate forms of warning are provided for containers of benzene within the workplace. There is no requirement to label pipes.

Initiate basic first aid procedures for benzene exposure at work.

If benzene gets splashed into eyes wash out immediately with large amounts of water and if eyes remain irritated or vision becomes blurry, see a doctor as soon as possible.

If benzene gets on the skin then take off the contaminated clothing, thoroughly wash the contacted skin with soap and water, and make sure to wash contaminated clothes before wearing them again.

If large amounts of benzene are inhaled quickly get the exposed person to fresh air quickly, apply artificial respiration if breathing has stopped, and call for medical assistance immediately.

If benzene is swallowed do NOT induce vomiting and call for medical assistance immediately.

OSHA Standard 1910.1028 App A (IV)(C) Never enter any vessel or confined space where the benzene concentration might be high without proper safety equipment and at least one other person present who will stay outside. A life line should be used.

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