Isocyanates Hazards in the Workplace

What Is An Isocyanate?

Isocyanates are a family of highly reactive chemicals. Isocyanates result from chemical reactions in plastics and polyurethanes. They are widely used in the manufacture of flexible and rigid foams, fibers, coatings such as paints and varnishes, and elastomers, and are increasingly used in the automobile industry, autobody repair, and building insulation materials.

Spray-on polyurethane products containing isocyanates have been developed for a wide range of retail, commercial, and industrial uses to protect cement, wood, fiberglass, steel and aluminum, including protective coatings for truck beds, trailers, boats, foundations, and decks. 

Why Are Isocyanates Harmful?

Isocyanates are powerful irritants to the mucous membranes of the eyes, gastrointestinal and respiratory tracts. The main concern is both respiratory and dermal exposures can lead to sensitization. Death from severe asthma in some sensitized subjects has been reported.

Health Effects of Isocyanates

Short-Term Exposure

Short-term exposure to isocyanates vapours can cause irritation or burning in the eyes, nose, throat, and skin. Liquids can cause rashes, reddening, or blistering.

If you work with isocyanates and experience persistent or recurring eye irritation, nasal congestion, dry or sore throat, cold-like symptoms, cough, shortness of breath, wheezing, or chest tightness should see a physician. 

Long-Term Exposure

Long-term exposure can cause a form of asthma called isocyanate asthma. People can develop a strong sensitivity to isocyanates. Workers can have a reaction even if there are only a few molecules of it in the air.

Isocyanates enter the workers both through their mouth and nose. If a worker has become sensitized to the chemical, they can experience asthma attack with exposure. During an asthma attack may have airways that are narrowed, inflamed and full of mucous. In rare cases these attacks can be fatal.  

Workers can also become so sensitive to isocyanates that they can no longer work when the chemicals are present. This could force workers to change careers. 

Who Needs To Be Concerned About Isocyanates?

Workers who manufacture plastics or apply polyurethane coatings may be at risk of exposure and should be aware of isocyanate hazards. Plastics release isocyanates into the air during manufacturing. Applying polyurethane products such as insulating spray foams, varnishes, paints, and coatings release isocyanates. Workers are most commonly exposed in the following industries:

  • Auto body and automotive painting
  • Construction with spray foam insulation
  • Industrial coatings
  • Manufacturing of bedding, furniture, clothing, appliances, electronics, tires, and packaging

How to Mitigate Isocyanates Hazards in the Workplace 

If your workplace has a risk of exposure to isocyanates, it’s important to familiarize yourself with the safety data sheets available to you. Contact Chemscape Safety Technologies to learn more about how our CHAMP program can help elevate the level of occupational health standards for your company.


Elevate the level of occupational health standards for your company.