A consequence of some forms of work (such as vehicle repair) is that workers come into contact with grease and oil, including used engine oil. Prolonged contact with oils and greases causes skin problems, such as rashes (oil acne), dermatitis and even skin cancer and testicular cancer. Also, contact with hot oil, as it is being drained from a hot engine, may also cause burns.
Under the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations 2002 (COSHH), the employer has various duties for preventing exposure to hazardous substances or for controlling such exposure to prevent harm to employees. The employer:
- Assess the health risk arising from the work done and decide what precautions are needed.
- Introduce appropriate measures to prevent or control the risk.
- Ensure that control measures are used and the equipment is properly maintained and procedures observed.
- Where necessary, monitor exposure to hazardous substances and carry out appropriate health surveillance.
- Inform, instruct and train employees as to the risks and of the precautions to be taken.
- Make arrangements for dealing with accidents, incidents and emergencies.
Protecting employees from the hazardous effects of exposure to oils
Skin rashes and dermatitis
‘Oil acne’ may be identified by the presence of blackheads, pimples and pustules on the skin. The arms are the area most commonly affected (as these are the area most likely to come into contact with oils and greases), but any other part of the body may be effected if it comes into contact with oils or oil soaked clothing. Oils may also remove the skin’s own naturally protective oils, leaving it dry. This dry skin is liable to crack and is more susceptible to damage caused by cuts and abrasions.
Certain mineral oils are known to cause, or are suspected of causing, cancer in humans. The carcinogenic potential of oil products is usually, but not always, associated with the presence of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH). Used engine oils have also been shown to have elevated PAH levels, which tend to be greater for petrol engines than for diesel engines. Prolonged exposure to certain mineral oils, and especially to used engine oil, may lead to the development of warty swellings or sores on the skin, especially on the scrotum. These may be slow to heal and they may also be cancerous. It is recognised that prolonged skin contact with used engine oil can lead to skin cancer and testicular cancer (from putting oily rags into overall pockets).
Used engine oil is listed as a carcinogenic substance in Schedule 1 of the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations 2002 (COSHH).
The best control measures are those that avoid exposure to oils (such as pumping systems in place of pouring systems), while others limit the amount of contact (such as hand washing after exposure).
Workers potentially exposed to oils should be provided with a sufficient number of protective overalls. It is usual for them to have at least three sets of overalls (one set to wear, one set being cleaned and at least one spare set). Suitable arrangements need to be made for the overalls to be cleaned. It is recommended that overalls are dry cleaned in order to remove oils and greases.
Ideally, overalls should be supplied without (trouser) pockets, so that oily rags cannot be stuffed into the pockets – reducing the potential for prolonged skin (scrotal) contact. Lack of pockets also reduces the risk of other injuries from the tools, etc. that may also otherwise be put into them.
The use of (disposable) plastic aprons should be considered for certain operations where there is a risk of oil contamination of the overalls.
Appropriate gloves should be worn to protect the hands from contact with oils. In many cases, disposable gloves (such as powdered latex gloves) are used, while in others, more robust longer use nitrile gloves are provided. The type of gloves provided will be dictated by the level of protection required and the type of work being undertaken. The thin, disposable gloves reduce skin contact with oil while allowing fine work to continue.
So called “barrier creams” must not be relied on to protect the skin from exposure to oils. They can, however, be a useful extra protection and can make it easier to wash oils off of the skin after exposure.
Decent washing facilities are necessary to remove oil from the skin. These should include both hot and cold running water as well as suitable skin cleansers. Suitable hand drying facilities should also be provided, such as paper towels. The use of suitable conditioning creams after washing can help to counter the degreasing effects of the oil on the skin. Skin must never be cleaned with solvents, etc.
Cuts and grazes
It is recommended that cuts and grazes are covered while at work.
It is recommended that, where appropriate, the use of rags for cleaning up is replaced by the use of suitable tissue wipes (usually supplied in a roll form). Dispensers for these rolls may be wall mounted at suitable locations in the workshop. This means that clean tissue is readily available for addressing small spills, cleaning tools, etc. and also that there is no temptation to keep rags (potentially oil contaminated) in overall pockets.
Cleaning of vehicle inspections pits
Where there is a vehicle inspection pit in the workshop, this should be maintained in a good, clean condition and it should be repainted at regular intervals. Cleaning and repainting will reduce the exposure to oils from the walls of the vehicle inspection pit as well as helping to improve the lighting within the pit.
Draining of oils from vehicles
The drainage of used engine from vehicles offers significant risk of contact with the use engine oil. These contact risks exist during the draining process, but also in subsequent handling of the drained oil, such as during transfer to a waste disposal holding vessel such as an oil drum or tank.
The risks may be reduced substantially by the use of a suitable oil collection vessel that later allows the waste oil to be pumped from the collection vessel to the waste oil storage vessel. The collection vessel should be fitted with a wide funnel (for catching the oil) which should in turn be fitted with mesh to catch sump keys, bolts, oil filters, etc.
Storage and disposal of waste oil
Waste oil should be stored in suitable, robust vessels inside a bunded storage area pending collection for disposal by a licensed collector of such special waste.
As it is recognised that prolonged skin contact with mineral oils can lead to occupational dermatitis and, in some cases skin cancer, the employer should carry out routine skin inspections as a precautionary measure. Employees should be encouraged to report sore, red or itching skin, whilst the responsible person should carry out regular, documented and recorded skin inspections of hands and forearms at monthly intervals. Cases of suspected dermatitis should be referred to a doctor or occupational hygiene nurse for further investigation. The results of health surveillance must be recorded and records must be retained for 40 years.
Information, instruction and training
Employees must be made aware of the hazards associated with oils and of the control measures to be used to protect their health. Awareness can also be raised with suitable notices and leaflets that are available from the HSE.
Spillages should be cleaned up immediately, using suitable absorbent granules.
Oils, and especially used engine oils, are hazardous substances. Prolonged exposure can cause skin problems, including skin and scrotal cancer. Avoiding exposure to oils is the best control measure available. Where exposure does occur, good personal hygiene and health surveillance are essential.