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October 4, 2023

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Health concerns and inspections for those who work with metalworking fluids or coolants

CREDIT: Christopher Burns/Unsplash

New health concerns have been raised for people who work with metalworking fluids or coolants.

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has warned anyone in industries using metalworking fluids or coolants may be at harm of skin and lung conditions and should get a health check.

The regulator will now visit businesses to look at how workers are protected from exposure to fluid or mist generated by computer numerical control (CNC) machines across Great Britain. The HSE will carry out unannounced inspections at each firm using these specialist machines between now and March 2024.

HSE inspector Fiona McGarry said: “Lung problems and irritated skin don’t have to be associated with working with metalworking fluid if you take the right precautions. It is really important that control measures and fluid quality checks are in place to keep workers healthy. Health checks are essential to identify signs of ill-health early. CNC machines are used in highly technical, specialist manufacturing fields applying precision engineering.”

Exposure to metalworking fluids – also known as ‘white water’ – can cause harm to lungs and skin through inhalation or direct contact, particularly the hands, forearms and face. It can lead to lung diseases such as occupational asthma and occupational hypersensitivity pneumonitis.

The HSE visited Nottingham-based engineering firm CNTL Ltd earlier this year and found many good practices but asked them to install local exhaust ventilation (LEV) on its CNC machines to carry away any harmful metalworking fluid mist, which is difficult to see in normal lighting.

CNTL Director Dane Rawson was apprehensive about the inspection at first but said they were helpful. He said: “I’m new to this side of the business, I haven’t dealt with a health and safety inspection before. At first, I was cautious, but it didn’t take long for the inspector to make us feel comfortable. She wasn’t trying to catch us out.

“We have several high-tech machines that constantly use pressurised coolant – it’s bound to create a mist. It was something we were aware of and had explored the option of installing LEVs, however as a result of HSE’s visit we wanted to follow their advice and action this sooner.

“We’ve noticed now that the smell of coolant is no longer there and air quality is much improved. It’s definitely a cleaner and safer environment to work in. The staff feel like we’ve done the right thing for them and know their wellbeing is a priority of ours.

For any company that is being inspected, don’t feel intimidated. They are only there to benefit you, your company and your staff.”

Past inspections have uncovered poor performance around control of metalworking fluids in other businesses that use CNC machines.

The HSE recommends all manufacturing businesses implement control measures and carry out health surveillance checks with occupational health professionals. It said fluid quality should be regularly checked focusing on concentration, pH, bacteria and contaminants.

It also reminded businesses it is a legal requirement to carry out health surveillance even when preventative controls are in place, encouraging workers to report any health symptoms that occur.

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