Isocyanate – what is it and what are the risks?

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Asthma in Winter
LLB (Hons) & LPC Stacy Pimlott
Legally reviewed by: LLB (Hons) & LPC Stacy Pimlott In: Industrial Disease

What is Isocyanate?

Isocyanate is a family of highly reactive chemicals. Isocyanate can be found in the following;

  • Paint – particularly 2-pack but can be used in water based paints;
  • Adhesives;
  • Foams;
  • Glues; and
  • Flooring.

The particular industries that may come into contact with Isocyanate are car, aerospace, metal and wood manufactures. However, you may come into contact with it whilst carrying out DIY tasks at home.

Some Job Roles that are at a Higher Risk of Isocyanate Exposure are;

  • Paint Sprayers;
  • Making of cushions, mattresses and vehicle seats where you are inserting foam; and
  • Floor or carpet layer.
  • A vehicle paint sprayer is 80 times more likely to get asthma than the average worker? ( )

How Can You Come Into Contact With It?

You may be exposed to isocyanate whilst you’re working. Dependant on how it is handled, you may inhale it when it becomes airborne, or it can be absorbed through your skin and eyes.

You may not be using the isocyante at work but still be coming into contact with it without knowing. For example, a paint sprayer may be spraying it and it becomes an aerosol. The aerosol droplets will become airborne in the area of work and you could be breathing it in.

What Symptoms You May Experience?

You may experience the following symptoms if you are exposed to isocyanate:

  • Coughing
  • Cold-like symptoms
  • Shortness of breath
  • Wheezing or tightness of chest
  • Eye irritation
  • Nasal congestion
  • Rashes

Those symptoms may develop after a few weeks after exposure, or it can take a few months.

If you are experiencing those symptoms, it would be recommended that you visit your GP to seek medical advice. You may be suffering from occupational asthma or dermatitis as a result.

What is Required From Your Employer?

Firstly, isocyanate is classed as a chemical that is hazardous to health under the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations (2002) (‘COSHH’). As such your employer should identify the task that involves using the chemical, and assess the risk it imposes on the employee(s). This information should be contained within a Risk Assessment.

It will be your employer’s responsibility to control the exposure to the isocyanate. This may mean your employer needs to seek an expert’s opinion. The usual ways of controlling the exposure to isocyonate is;

  • Stop using products containing it;
  • Use it in a different way that limits the exposure to it;
  • By having a suitable ventilation system in use so there is sufficient ventilation within the working environment;
  • Providing employees within suitable personal protective equipment (PPE) – such as face fitted masks, goggles or a face shield, gloves and overalls;

Although the above will hopefully control the exposure to isocyonate, the employer must also provide suitable training and information to their employees to ensure they understand the use of the controls properly.

It does not stop there for the employer; they will need to continue to monitor the above to ensure that it is effective.

It may be beneficial for your employer to carry out health surveillance on their employees to ensure they are not experiencing any symptoms. If they identify an employee with symptoms, they must take the appropriate steps, i.e. revisit the methods in place to see how they are being exposed and rectify them, or may it be that the employee is removed from the job role.

What To Do if You Think Your Employer is Not Protecting You From Exposure

If you feel you are not being adequately protected there are a number of things you can do. The first step would be to bring this to the attention of your employer and discuss your concerns with them. There are a number of things they may be able to do in the first instance to ensure you are protected.

If you feel that you need to take things further then you can complain to the HSE or your local council. If appropriate they will then visit your workplace, consider the health and safety procedures and discuss any necessary next steps with your employer.

Read more on our industrial disease claims page