How to manage metalworking fluids

21 September 2017

Metalworking fluids – otherwise known as suds, coolants, slurry or soap – are used when machining or shaping metals, to provide lubrication and cooling.

Under the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations (COSHH), as an employer, you’re legally required to prevent or minimise employees’ exposure to metalworking fluids by inhalation, ingestion or skin contact.

Health impacts

If insufficiently managed, metalworking fluids can:

  • Cause irritation of the skin or dermatitis
  • Increase the risk of work-related asthma, bronchitis, irritation of the respiratory tract and breathing difficulties
  • Lead to skin cancer if skin’s exposed to the substance.

Your responsibilities

To keep on top of your legal responsibilities and ensure the safety of your employees, you should:

Legal responsibilityYes/No
Conduct a relevant risk assessment and clearly communicate its findings to affected employees.
Can you remove the need for metalworking fluids or substitute with less harmful substances?
Put appropriate measures in place to prevent or minimise airborne mists. Just a few ways to do this include: enclosing the process area; installing exhaust ventilation; using low misting metalworking fluids; or introducing splash guards.
Check and maintain the quality of metalworking fluids being used.
Monitor and control bacterial contamination of fluids in machinery and its pipework using dip slides – or any another suitable appliance.
If employees are exposed to fluid or mist, put a competent person in charge of running regular health surveillance checks, to identify any instances of ill health and action needed to prevent further deterioration.
Provide employees with suitable Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) to reduce skin exposure to metalworking fluids.
If any employees express concerns to do with metalworking fluid exposure, refer them to a competent occupational health professional.
In cases where an employee is diagnosed with ill health as a result of metalworking fluid exposure, investigate the likely cause and put appropriate measures in place to ensure the risk is prevented or minimised.
Ensure you have adequate facilities on site for employees to store and clean any contaminated workwear.
Supply employees with sufficient information and training. Training should include things like: the risks of working with metalworking fluids; how the risk controls work; how to check that risk controls are working as they should; how to safely maintain and clean equipment; how to look after PPE; and what processes should be followed if something goes wrong.
Where necessary, supervise employees to make sure they’re working safely and understand the controls and procedures you’ve set out.
Regularly monitor the implementation of your controls and procedures. After all, what use are they if no-ones following them?
Undertake daily checks of: appearance and odour; surface oil, creaming and water layers; and concentration by refractometer. On a weekly basis: monitor temperature; record pH; and check for bacteria and fungi. And finally, on a monthly rota, check: water hardness; conductivity; foaming; and filters.
If there any changes to your controls, procedures or way in which employees work with metalworking fluids, keep relevant employees up-to-date and ensure they fully understand the changes.

Health checks

As well as conducting regular – we’d recommend monthly – health surveillance checks for employees who’re exposed to fluid or mist, you should ask all affected employees to complete an annual questionnaire about their breathing.

This questionnaire could include questions like:

  • Do you regularly cough while at work?
  • Do you bring up phlegm when you cough?
  • Do you find yourself short of breath when walking on a flat surface?
  • How many chest-related illnesses have you had in the last year?

We’d also recommend encouraging employees to monitor themselves on a regular basis. Advise them to check their skin for any noticeable changes, and urge them speak up if they suspect any ill health effects.

Here to help

If you’ve any questions on your roles and responsibilities when it comes to metalworking fluids, our Health & Safety experts are available on 0345 844 1111. Alternatively, you can get in touch online and one of our advisors will be with you right away.

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