Working Safely with Isocyanates

Isocyanates are found in materials that are commonly used in the automobile and insulation industries. Preventing exposure to isocyanates is critical to keeping workers that manufacture foam, fibers, paints and varnishes safe and healthy.

Exposure to isocyanates is most common when workers are performing the following tasks: applying building insulation, burning polyurethane material, foam-blowing, installing truck bed liners, manufacturing pesticides, painting or repairing vehicles, working with polyurethane products in confined spaces, and working with polyurethane raw materials and hot products.

Isocyanates are power irritants that can damage mucous membranes in the eyes and in the gastrointestinal and respiratory tracts. Direct skin exposure can also cause inflammation. Employees exposed to isocyanates should see a doctor immediately if they experience any of the following symptoms:

  • Eye irritation
  • Nasal congestion
  • Dry or sore throat
  • Cold-like symptoms
  • Cough
  • Shortness of breath
  • Wheezing
  • Tightness of the chest

Of course, as with any toxic chemical or material, prevention is the key. What follows are the best way to prevent exposure to isocyanates:

  1. Closed systems and ventilation should always be employed when working with isocyanates.
  2. When working with isocyanates, employees should be isolated from others.
  3. Personal protective equipment such as respirators should always be employed. A supplied air respirator gives the highest level of protection. Full face and half mask respirators with organic vapor cartridges and pre-filters may be acceptable in some circumstances if they are correctly used and maintained.
  4. Personal protective clothing should be worn. This includes the proper type of gloves. Latex gloves do not provide the correct amount of protection.
  5. When possible, consider using an alternative to isocyanates.

Employees who work with and around isocyanates can be sensitized to the chemical through breathing it in and having their skin come into contact with it. It is important to recognize early signs of sensitization to reduce the risks of permanent respiratory problems.

In order to protect themselves, those who work with isocyanates should always wash their hands before eating or drinking outside of these work area. They also should shower and put on clean clothes before leaving work and make sure that their workplace has an air-monitoring program and material safety data sheets for products that contain isocyanates.

Workers should also expect the following from their employers when working with this chemical:

  • Safety training and education on isocyanates
  • Continuous air monitoring
  • Medical monitoring to detect and prevent long-term effects of exposure

Working Safely with Isocynates