Metalworking fluid (MWF) is the name given to a range of oils and other liquids that are used to cool and/or lubricate metal workpieces when they are being machined, ground, milled, etc. MWFs reduce the heat and friction between the cutting tool and the workpiece, and help prevent burning and smoking. Applying MWFs also helps improve the quality of the workpiece by continuously removing the fines, chips, and swarfs from the tool being used and the surface of the workpiece. (Swarfs are the small pieces of metal removed from a workpiece by a cutting tool.)
Yes. While there are many different components and additives in MWFs, there are four basic classes.
Although each class will vary greatly in composition, each may contain additives such as
When stored, nitrosamines can form while the fluid is stored for long periods of time. Nitrosamines form slowly in the water-based MWFs and may be the result of interaction of nitrites in the fluid, lining of the cans used for storage, or from nitrogen oxides in air. Recycling MWFs can increase the problem if more reactants are added.
When MWFs are used, a primary concern is the presence of contaminants that encourage the growth of bacteria and fungi in water-based MWFs. The bacteria can degrade the emulsions and change the properties of the MWFs. While biocides are added to reduce the amount of microbial growth, the biocide products themselves have hazardous properties.
Other sources of contamination include "tramp" oils - oils used by the machines such as hydraulic oil, gear box oil, and lubricants. Tramp oils that leak into the metalworking fluids can also contribute to microbial growth.
MWFs are also contaminated by small particles of the metal or alloy objects (e.g., fines, chips, swarfs) that come off the parts while they are being machined. Common metals used include steel or alloys containing nickel, cobalt and chromium.
In addition, while the extent of the problem is not clear, there is the potential for straight oils to be heated during use (usually at the site where the cutting tool works on the metal workpiece) and the temperature may increase high enough to cause the formation of polynuclear hydrocarbons (or polyaromatic hydrocarbons, PAHs).
MWFs may also be contaminated by water, cleaning products used for routine housekeeping, or other products at the work site. Improper recycling of materials or the addition of unspecified fluids (such as old lubricating oils) to the MWF will also change the composition of fluid.
MWFs can enter the body when:
MWFs have been associated with several health concerns. Contact dermatitis is the most common skin condition reported which can result in burning, itching, and blistery skin while breathing in the mists may cause asthma and lung irritation (hypersensitivity pneumonitis), chronic bronchitis, and impaired lung function.
There is also evidence that some MWFs are associated with an increase risk of certain cancers such as larynx, rectum, pancreas, skin, scrotum, and bladder. Since the time between exposure and the development of the disease is often more than 20 years, most of this risk is thought to be from MWFs used in the mid 1970s or earlier. Substantial changes to the composition of MWFs and reductions in the contaminants have occurred in the past few decades and as a result, the risk of cancer from more recent exposures is not as clear.
Overall, the type and severity of the health problem depend on:
The three major areas of concern (skin, respiratory and cancer) are described in more detail below.
All types of MWFs can cause skin irritation. If you had severe eczema as a child, there is a high risk that you will suffer dermatitis when exposed to MWFs. Exposure occurs when hands are dipped into the fluid, or when a person handles the parts, tools and equipment covered in fluid. Splashing is a concern if guarding is absent or inadequate. Clothing contaminated with MWF, poor housekeeping, and poor personal hygiene also contribute to skin exposure.
Irritant or allergic contact dermatitis is reported to occur from exposure to soluble, semisynthetic, and synthetic MWFs. Dermatitis can be caused by:
Skin conditions associated with straight oils include:
In addition, the small metal particles (fines and swarfs) generated while parts are machined can damage the skin and make existing irritations worse.
Skin conditions can become disabling if not treated or if the worker continues to work with condition.
An increase in work-related asthma, bronchitis, irritation of the respiratory tract and breathing difficulties is commonly reported by those exposed to metalworking fluids. Exposure to mist, aerosol, and vapour also aggravates existing respiratory conditions.
It is not clear whether respiratory problems are caused by specific fluid components, contaminants, products of microbial growth or degradation, or a combination of these factors. For example, metalworking fluid-induced asthma is reported more consistently with synthetic MWFs, but MWF-induced asthma can also occur with soluble and straight fluids.
Again, the severity of exposure depends on proximity to the machine, and if the operations involve high tool speeds and deep cuts, if the machine is enclosed, or if ventilation equipment is working properly. High pressure or excessive fluid application, contamination of fluid (with tramp oil), improper fluid selection, and poor maintenance will also result in higher exposures.
Bacteria contamination can cause irritation of respiratory tracts or flu-like symptoms, aggravate asthma, and irritate the eyes, nose and throat (causing a sore throat, red watery itchy eyes, runny nose, nose bleeds, coughing wheezing, or shortness of breath). For example, hypersensitivity pneumonitis (HP) is an allergic type reaction in the lungs that may be caused by exposure to microbial products. HP is marked by chills, fever, shortness of breath and a deep cough - similar to a cold that will not go away. If left untreated, it can lead to irreversible lung damage.
Cancers often associated with exposure to metalworking fluids include rectum, pancreas, larynx, skin, scrotum, esophagus, and bladder. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) in the USA reports that studies were not highly consistent regarding the specific types of cancer associated with MWFs. This uncertainty is likely due to the wide variation in the types of MWFs and contaminants and the lack of detailed exposure information.
Also, because the latency period (the time between first exposure and the discovery of disease) for cancer is often 20 years or more, it is likely that the diseases studied recently are associated with older formulations of MWFs (from the mid 1970s and earlier). For example, fluids used before 1985 may have contained nitrites, mildly refined petroleum oils and other chemicals which were removed because of health concerns. Cancer risks have likely been reduced but there is not enough data yet to prove this theory.
Areas of concern for risk of cancer currently include:
The supplier/manufacturers of the fluid can provide you with the Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) which will provide information about the ingredients and health and safety hazards.
It is important to monitor the MWF for contamination, and to have good work practices that help keep the fluids as free from contamination as possible.
MWFs, in general, may contain any number and concentration of hazardous components. The risk of these chemicals varies with the manufacturing process, as well as changes such as refining, recycling, degradation, or using reclaimed chemicals, and potential reactions between components.
Since there are so many variations of MWFs, it is best to work with them safely and keep exposures as low as possible, no matter which type is being used. Steps include:
Proper design and operation of the MWF delivery system
Good work practices include the following:
Engineering controls are preferred before using PPE&C, but in certain situations, PPE&C may be required. Employees should be trained to know when PPE&C are necessary, what PPE&C to wear, how to wear and remove it properly, the limitations of the PPE&C, and its proper care and maintenance.
PPE&C that may be required when working with metalworking machines and metalworking fluids include those that provide protection from:
For example, gloves, protective sleeves, aprons, eye protection (goggles and/or face shields with safety goggles), chemical-resistant clothing, and caps may be needed. However, in some situations, gloves may not be appropriate as they can get tangled in moving parts or workpieces. A thorough hazard assessment of the task must be done.
Respiratory protection that is classified as "resistant to oil" (class R) or oil proof (class P) should be selected where appropriate. Depending on the level of airborne contaminants, an air-purifying, half mask respirator (with HEPA filter) including disposable (P- or R-series) (for oil mists less than 50 mg/m3), or any powered, air-purifying respirator equipped with hood or helmet and HEPA filter (for oil mists less than 125 mg/m3).
Remember that there may be other hazards associated with the MWF. For example, straight oil systems may also require fire protection. Read your MSDS and Technical Bulletins so that you know and understand the hazards of the products that you are using, how to work safely with them, and what to do in case of spills or any emergency situations.
Document last updated on November 5, 2013