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Written by Martin Coppard 16/08/2021

The risks of metalworking fluids

These oil or water-based fluids are used when machining or shaping metals and exposure can potentially cause irritation of the skin, respiratory problems and even cancer.

Around 200 cases of dermatitis and occupational asthma are reported every year, due to workers’ skin coming into contact with these fluids or having inhaled mists. The risks to health increase as the fluid deteriorates with use and becomes contaminated with tramp oil, metal fines and microorganisms.

New Health & Safety guidance for metalwork employers

Earlier this year, the United Kingdom Lubricants Association for employers in the metalworking industry released updated guidance, specifically about the risks associated with the use and handling of metalworking fluids. From help as to how to store, prepare, use and dispose of metalworking fluids, to methods of cleaning, take a look at the full guidance here.

Five ways employers can mitigate against risk

It’s important that employers ensure that the core requirements of the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations 2002 (COSHH) and the principles of good practice therein, are being followed. In particular employers should:

  • Look to control the risk at source - design operating procedures and ways of working to minimise emissions and contact with metalworking fluids and mist.
  • Choose control measures that are proportionate to the risk - consider the measures that are the most reliable in minimising the escape and spread of mist.
  • Review the effectiveness of controls - for example, carry out regular checks and periodical inspections and tests on the performance of Local Exhaust Ventilation (LEV) systems.
  • Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) is the ‘last resort’  - where adequate control of exposure can’t be achieved by other means, provide, in combination with other control measures, suitable PPE.
  • Information and training - ensure all employees are aware of the hazards and risks to health, as well as the use of required control measures to minimise exposure.

Protective equipment & health surveillance

The updated guidance gives more detail on the use of PPE and specific details on what should be worn and when.  Tight-fitting, easy tear disposable gloves should be worn when the machinery is running, as these have a low risk of entanglement.  Thicker gloves which provide protection from chemical and mechanical hazards can only be worn when the machinery has been switched off and isolated - for instance, when cleaning and performing maintenance tasks. 

Respiratory Protective Equipment (RPE) is generally not required unless a mist is likely to be created during cleaning work.  In this case, a FFP3 grade disposable mask should be sufficient.  As always with tight-fitting RPE, ensure that a face-fit test has been carried out for each user.

Finally, COSHH requires that health surveillance is provided where there’s a reasonable likelihood of disease occurring in the workplace.  For work with metalworking fluids, this programme should cover both skin and lung disease.

Let us help

This is a complex area and the purpose of this article is to provide a summary of the key principles.  For further information or for help in drafting your Risk Assessment or Safe System of Work (SSW), get in touch with us at

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Category: Risk Management

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