In hazard-prone industrial projects, some risks can be easier to overlook than others. That’s often the case with volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which are often not immediately noticeable but can be dangerous nonetheless. If you want to protect your employees from all hazards, you must address VOC-related risks.

VOCs are organic gases that seep out of some solids and liquids. While these compounds are common in nature, their concentrations can be up to 10 times stronger indoors, posing significant threats to worker health. Depending on the specific gas and exposure time, VOCs can lead to headaches, nausea, liver, kidney, and nervous system damage, and even cancer.

Addressing these hazards starts with understanding where the biggest VOC risks occur. Here’s a look at the most significant sources in industrial projects.


Manufacturing VOCs

Many VOCs come from the raw materials used in production, so the manufacturing process is particularly prone to these hazards. Paints and adhesives are some of the most common sources, though they’re present in thousands of products workers might use daily.

Some common VOCs to watch out for include butane, benzene, formaldehyde, and methylene chloride. While small amounts of these chemicals may not have any noticeable health effects, manufacturing workers may be around them in far greater concentrations. Mixing large quantities of raw materials, using aerosols, and removing material via machining can all kick up these particles, making exposure more likely.

VOCs can also enter manufacturing facilities through cleaning products. Many industrial and even household cleaners contain compounds like ethanol and acetic acid. Overuse of these chemicals or repeated exposure could create health risks.


Supply chain VOCs

Another significant source of industrial VOC risks is the supply chain. Even though a facility may not manage any raw materials that emit these compounds, they may be released by parts or products in transit. As a result, the workers who unpack, move, or otherwise handle these items may be exposed to high VOC concentrations.

Packaging materials can also contain VOCs. Studies show that softer plastics like PVC and PE emit larger quantities of VOCs because of their porous nature. These more flexible materials also happen to be common in packaging products, so workers moving boxes around or unpacking shipments may be at a heightened risk.

VOCs from the manufacturing stage can also affect supply chain employees. During long shipping times, some chemicals may seep out of products, especially at warmer temperatures, leading to VOC buildup before workers open these packages.


Building and construction VOCs

Industrial businesses may also encounter VOCs through emissions from the facility itself. These compounds appear in common building materials like caulks, varnishes, and upholstery. Insulating foam and vinyl flooring may also contain dangerous chemicals that can seep out over time, leading to long-term exposure.

VOCs typically don’t emit large concentrations from these materials, but industrial buildings undergo more strain. Because floors, walls, and furniture in a manufacturing facility or similar property will see heavier use, they may emit more gasses. Employees working long shifts or putting in years of service are at a higher risk of exposure.

Building- and construction-related VOCs may be more prominent when businesses expand their properties. Installing new infrastructure or constructing new rooms could kick up more materials, leaving more of these dangerous chemicals in the air.


Mitigating VOC-related risks

Once you know where the largest VOC risks are, you can take more effective measures to mitigate them. Start by running a VOC assessment by going over the materials used in manufacturing, supply chain operations, and construction to see what VOCs workers face and in what concentrations. Using internet of things (IoT) sensors to monitor in-air concentrations will provide more insight into exposure levels.

Next, ensure all workspaces are well-ventilated. Air cleaners often aren’t effective at removing VOCs, so it’s best to move these hazards out of working areas as soon as possible. Use industrial-grade fans and HEPA filters to ensure consistent airflow and move indoor airborne contaminants outside.

You should also try to remove VOCs from the supply chain as much as possible. Look for alternative materials across manufacturing, shipping, and facility furnishing with low VOC risks to minimize employees’ exposure. One of the easiest areas to adjust in this process is swapping conventional cleaning solutions for low-VOC alternatives.

Some workers, like those working near paints or varnishes, may need respirators to prevent VOC inhalation. Many VOCs can stay airborne for several days, so it’s important that workers in these high-risk processes always wear respirators, not just while actively using these materials.

Finally, educate employees about the dangers and signs of VOCs. If anyone notices symptoms like shortness of breath or eye, nose, and throat irritation, they should report it and step away from their work as soon as possible. Be sure to continually monitor VOC levels to catch any concerning trends before they endanger workers.


Keep workers safe from volatile organic compounds

VOCs can be difficult to detect, but they’re remarkably common. When you know about these hazards and where they come from, you can make more informed decisions about minimizing the related risks.

VOC exposure is concerning but preventable. Learn where your risks lie and follow these steps to keep your workforce safe from these compounds.