Acrylamide technical fact sheet

Acrylamide (pro-2-enamide) is a white crystalline solid and is a chemical formed when carbohydrate (starchy) foods are cooked at high temperatures.  It is also present in tobacco smoke.  Acrylamide can be prepared by the hydrolysis of acrylonitrile by nitrile hydratase. Adequate controls for the proper use, handling and storage of acrylamide reduces the risk of hazardous exposures and illness in the workplace.

The NSW Work Health and Safety Roadmap aims to achieve a 50% reduction in serious injuries and illnesses by 2022, including a 30% reduction in exposures to priority hazardous chemicals and materials. An initial list of 100 priority chemicals was developed based on national and international sources. This list was further refined using the following criteria: toxicity rating, exposure potential, estimated quantities used and potential number of workers using these chemicals. Acrylamide ranked tenth based on these criteria.

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Sources of exposure

Acrylamide is used in different industrial and laboratory processes.  The major use of acrylamide is to manufacture polyacrylamide and acrylamide copolymers used in water purification and sewage treatment, paper production, plastic manufacturing and in some cosmetics and soap preparations. It is also used in molecular biology laboratories and in the formulation of acrylamide grouting agents.

Occupational exposures are likely to result from inhalation of dust and vapour. Absorption through the skin may also be a significant source of exposure.

Health effects

Acrylamide is a potent neurotoxin affecting both the peripheral and central nervous system.  It is also a skin and respiratory irritant. Depending on factors such as the concentration and duration of use, it can result in different degrees of harm to workers.

Brief (acute) exposure to high concentrations of acrylamide can cause drowsiness and hallucinations, with the potential for symptoms of motor and sensory peripheral neuropathy such as weakness, numbness or pain in the hands or feet.

Long term (chronic) exposure to acrylamide through inhalation can lead to nerve damage, resulting in excessive sweating, especially of extremities. There may also be neuro-behavioural changes, slurred speech, weight loss with normal appetite and fatigue. Chronic dermal exposure can lead to skin sensitisation that may result in contact dermatitis.

Other consequences which have been demonstrated in animals following repeated exposure, include carcinogenicity and reproductive effects. However, the evidence is not convincing enough to establish a causal link between acrylamide and carcinogenicity and reproductive effects in humans. Studies of occupational exposure have not suggested increased risks of cancer.

Labelling and safety data sheets

Manufacturers and importers of acrylamide need to ensure that the hazardous chemicals are labelled and safety data sheets (SDS) are prepared and provided (cl.330 and 335 Work Health and Safety Regulation 2017).

Suppliers of a hazardous chemical to a workplace must provide current SDS (cl.339).

Persons Conducting a Business or Undertaking (PCBUs) must correctly label hazardous chemicals used, handled or stored at the workplace, including containers and pipework (cl. 341,342,343). The PCBU must also obtain a copy of the SDS and make it readily accessible to workers involved in using, handling or storing the hazardous chemical at the workplace (cl. 344).

Workplace exposure standards and air monitoring

According to the Work Health and Safety Regulation 2017, businesses must ensure that workers are not exposed to airborne chemicals above the workplace exposure standard. Acrylamide has a workplace exposure standard (WES) of 0.03 mg/m3 averaged over 8 hours (time weighted average). Risks to health and safety from exposures to hazardous chemicals must, so far as is reasonably practicable, be eliminated (cl. 35). PCBUs must ensure that no person at the workplace is exposed to a substance above its exposure standard (cl. 49) and must reduce exposures so far as is reasonably practicable.

PCBUs must undertake exposure (air) monitoring for substances with an exposure standard if they are not certain (on reasonable grounds) as to whether the exposure standard is exceeded (cl. 50). Adjustments to the exposure standards are made for extended work shifts, taking into account the longer daily exposure. Air monitoring results must be readily available to workers and records of results kept for 30 years (cl. 50).

A PCBU must review any control measures implemented if a workplace exposure standard for a hazardous chemical has been exceeded (cl. 352):

  • when the workplace exposure standard for a hazardous chemical has been exceeded
  • if a health monitoring report contains advice a worker may have contracted an illness/disease, or a recommendation for remedial measures including whether a worker can continue to work with the hazardous chemical
  • the SDS for the hazardous chemical changes.

Health monitoring

Under the Work Health and Safety Regulation 2017, PCBUs are required to provide health monitoring to workers if there is a significant risk to the worker’s health because of exposure to a hazardous chemical listed in schedule 14 of the Work Health and Safety Regulation 2017. Acrylamide is not listed in schedule 14. However there remains a requirement to provide health monitoring if there is a significant risk to the worker, and there are valid techniques to detect effects on workers’ health (cl. 368).

In relation to health monitoring, PCBU (cl. 369 to 378) duties include:

  • informing workers of the requirements for health monitoring
  • using a registered medical practitioner with experience in health monitoring
  • providing details to the medical practitioner
  • obtaining a copy of the health monitoring report
  • providing a copy of the health monitoring report to SafeWork NSW if the worker has developed a disease or injury and/or the report contains any recommendations on remedial measures at the workplace
  • keeping records of health monitoring for 30 years.

Control measures

Where risks to health and safety cannot be eliminated the hierarchy of controls must be applied in accordance with cl. 36 of the Work Health and Safety Regulation 2017 to minimise risks.

  • Eliminate the use of acrylamide if reasonably practicable.
  • Employ engineering controls such as minimising the generation of vapours and mists, in particular:  
    • installation of automated debagging equipment, isolation, enclosure and extraction of the cutting process during polymer manufacture
    • weighing and decanting of acrylamide solid (powder) should take place in a fume hood/cupboard
    • where acrylamide is not used in a closed system (such as laboratories) or is present as a contaminant in workplace air (such as polymerisation vessels and gel processing machinery), good local exhaust ventilation should be in place.
  • Avoid skin contact by wearing chemical-resistant gloves and other personal protective equipment as needed.
  • Instruct and train workers in the correct fitting, use and maintenance of PPE.
  • Follow instructions and controls outlined in SDS) and product labels.

PCBUs must provide suitable information, training, instruction and supervision to workers using, storing and handling hazardous chemicals regarding the nature of the work, risks and the controls implemented (cl. 39 and 379).

PCBUs with duties under the Work Health and Safety Regulation 2017 must review and revise control measures, as necessary, to maintain a work environment so far as is reasonably practicable, that is without risk to health or safety (cl. 38).

More information

More information is contained in:

  • Australian standards
    • AS/NZS 1715;2009 Selection, Use and Maintenance of Respiratory Protection

In the event of suspected exposure, call the Poisons Information Centre on 131 126.

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