Occupational Hazards of Benzene

What Is Benzene?

Benzene is a clear, colourless, extremely flammable liquid with a sweet odor. It is a commonly used chemical. It is used mainly as a raw material to make other chemicals, including plastics, lubricants, rubbers, dyes, detergents, drugs, and pesticides. Benzene is also a natural part of crude oil and gasoline (and therefore motor vehicle exhaust). 

Why is Benzene Harmful?

Benzene has both physical and health hazards associated with it. Benzene is a highly flammable liquid and vapor. It may be fatal if swallowed and enters airways. It causes skin and serious eye irritation. It may cause genetic defects. It may cause cancer. It targets the blood system and damages it through prolonged or repeated exposure. Health experts still advocate that the only safe concentration for benzene is zero. Over the past decades, industry has worked at reducing the use and level of benzene in manufacturing and in emissions. 

How Does Benzene Harm My Body? 

The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has concluded that benzene is known to be carcinogenic to humans. Benzene is classified as a Group 1 carcinogen. Long-term exposure to benzene may increase the incidence of a specific type of leukemia (acute myelogenous leukemia) and may be associated with other forms of leukemia and lymphomas (cancers that develop from cells in the lymphatic system).  

Long-term exposure to benzene mainly harms the bone marrow, the soft, inner parts of bones where new blood cells are made. This can result in: 

  • Anemia (a low red blood cell count), which can cause a person to feel weak and tired. 
  • A low white blood cell count, which can lower the body’s ability to fight infections and might even be life-threatening. 
  • A low blood platelet count, which can lead to excess bruising and bleeding. 

Long-Term Benzene Exposure

There is also some evidence that long-term exposure to benzene might harm reproductive organs. Some women who have breathed in high levels of benzene for many months have had irregular menstrual periods and ovary shrinkage, but it is not known for sure if benzene caused these effects. It is not known if benzene exposure affects the fetus in pregnant women or fertility in men. 

Short-Term Benzene Exposure

Short term exposure to benzene liquid or vapor can irritate the skin, eyes, and throat. Skin exposure to benzene can result in redness and blisters. Breathing in high doses of benzene can affect the nervous system, which can lead to drowsiness, dizziness, headaches, tremors, confusion, and/or unconsciousness. Consuming foods or fluids contaminated with high levels of benzene can cause vomiting, stomach irritation, dizziness, sleepiness, convulsions, and rapid heart rate. In extreme cases, inhaling or swallowing very high levels of benzene can be deadly. 

Who Needs To Be Concerned About Benzene Hazards in the Workplace?

Most exposure for workers is low via inhalation of motor vehicle exhaust. Benzene exposure is a common concern in the oil and gas industry during drilling, refining, and transport. It would also be a concern in related industries that use petroleum by-products in their manufacturing such as plastics and chemicals. Occupations at risk of benzene exposure include automotive service technicians and mechanics, delivery and courier drivers, taxi and limousine drivers, and firefighters. 

How to Prevent Occupational Benzene Exposure? 

If you are a worker in one of the listed occupations above, it is important that your workplace has an exposure control plan in place to mitigate the health risks. Contact Chemscape today to learn how we can create a custom plan on your business’s industry requirements.


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