Benzene technical fact sheet

Benzene is a clear, colourless, flammable liquid with a sweet odour. Adequate controls for the proper use, handling and storage of benzene 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. Benzene ranked fourth based on these criteria.

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Sources of Exposure

Benzene is mainly used by the chemical industry in Australia.  It can be found in process streams at petroleum refineries, petroleum based fuels, bitumen and manufacturing processes for polystyrenes, polycarbonates, epoxy, phenolic resins and nylon. Workers may also be exposed to benzene during burning processes or from vehicle exhaust and cigarette smoke.

Exposure to benzene typically occurs by inhaling the airborne vapours.  Benzene evaporates into the air very quickly and is readily absorbed into the body through the lungs. It can also be absorbed through the skin. Ingestion of benzene-contaminant is unlikely at work. If benzene enters the body it may be temporarily stored in bone marrow and fat but will quickly be metabolised (broken down) by the liver. Some of these metabolites also cause harmful effects but most leave the body in the urine within 48 hours.

Exposure to ethanol and benzene together can increase the toxicity to the blood system. Whereas, exposure to toluene and benzene can reduce the body’s ability to remove benzene because both chemicals are broken down in the body in a similar way.

Health effects

Acute exposure to high concentrations of benzene vapour can result in central nervous system depression (eg impaired thinking, blurred vision), arrhythmias as well as irritation of the skin, eyes and respiratory system. In most cases, people will stop feeling these effects when they are no longer exposed. However, like other hydrocarbons, benzene can cause chemical pneumonia if its liquid form is aspirated in to the lungs. Inhalation of very large amounts of benzene can also result in death.

Prolonged or repeated contact with the skin causes redness, drying and cracking because benzene dissolves and removes the protective natural oils from the skin. Benzene is haematotoxic (toxic to blood) and leukaemogenic (may induce leukemia). It is also genotoxic (causes mutation to cells), usually when there is exposure to concentrations that are high enough to also cause blood changes.

Labelling and safety data sheets

Manufacturers and importers of benzene need to ensure that hazardous chemicals are labelled, 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).

Health monitoring

PCBUs are required to provide health monitoring to workers if there is a significant risk to the worker’s health because of exposure to benzene (cl. 368). Benzene is listed in schedule 14 of the Work Health and Safety Regulation 2017 which outlines the health monitoring requirements.

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.

Workers exposed to benzene at levels or a frequency not resulting in a significant risk to health, are not required to undergo health monitoring. Workers relying on personal protective equipment (PPE) such as respirators for controlling their exposures below the exposure standard must be included in health monitoring.

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. For instance:

  • Eliminate the use of benzene if reasonably practicable.
  • Employ engineering controls to reduce fugitive emissions during transfers between closed systems.
  • Eliminate the need to break open closed systems.
  • Where benzene is not used in a closed system (such as laboratories) or is present as a contaminant of workplace air (such as car repair shops), good local exhaust ventilation should be ensured.
  • Avoid skin contact by wearing chemical-resistant gloves and other PPE.
  • 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).

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