Respiratory Irritants-April 2011

Monthly Round Up of Important Ideas and Standards in
Industrial Hygiene and Safety 

April 2011

IN THIS ISSUE: Respiratory Irritants

A number of chemicals and substances that do not have long-term health effects may still irritate the respiratory tract.  Irritants may have no exposure limit – such as onions and jalapenos that are irritating but not hazardous – or their use may be well below any exposure standard.  For example, household ammonia-based cleaners, although formulated at low levels, may be bothersome when inhaled. 

Respiratory irritants that a worker inhales may cause a range of respiratory problems to the nose, throat, or lungs: 

  • Burning sensation
  • Bleeding
  • Cold or flu-like symptoms such as a runny nose or scratchy throat
  • Excessive wheezing
  • Coughing
  • Difficulty catching one’s breath

Dust, while not considered hazardous, may irritate the lungs. Many jobs where mechanical processes are in place, such as with packaging or machining, sanding, or grinding, may create particulates that end up in the air. Other respiratory irritants that may not be hazardous when used in small quantities include: 

  • Vapors such as from mineral spirits, cleaning fluids, and water based paints
  • Fumes or fine solid particles from carbon steel used in furnace and metal work and welding
  • Smoke from burning materials

Respond to employees’ respiratory complaints quickly and systematically: 

  1. Determine what symptoms exist and whether the cause is exposure to hazardous or non-hazardous substances, or prior employee health issues such as allergies or asthma.  Keep in mind that smoking may exacerbate the effects of irritants. 
  2. Determine whether a facility process is contributing to the symptoms. 
  3. Once the source is identified, improve engineering controls, maintenance, and work practices, and provide respiratory protection.  
  4. If needed, have the affected employee evaluated by a medical doctor. 
  5. Continue to monitor employee complaints and conduct air testing to record changes and improvements in air quality. 

For more information on this topic and to discuss your company’s safety and industrial hygiene needs call OccuSafe at (214) 662-6005 or (303) 219-6973 or visit us at

OccuSafe Industrial Hygiene & Safety, Inc. provides skills and expertise to recognize, evaluate andcontrol hazards and injuries in the areas of industrial hygiene, occupational safety and health. OccuSafe services companies of all sizes in a range of industries.

This newsletter is published monthly by OccuSafe Industrial Hygiene & Safety, Inc.   Feel free to forward it to friends and colleagues.

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