OSHA Alert: Dry Cleaning Chemical Poses Health Hazards to Workers

A commonly used chemical in the dry cleaning industry can pose serious health risks to workers, according to OSHA.

"Reducing Worker Exposures to Perchloroethylene in Dry Cleaning," a publication the agency recently issued, alerts employers to the dangers of perchloroethylene, a volatile organic chemical commonly used in the industry. Dry cleaning workers who routinely breathe the solvent's vapors or spill it on their skin are at risk of developing health problems that include skin, liver and kidney damage and possibly cancer, according to the agency. The inhalation of the chemical also has been shown to cause dizziness, loss of coordination, memory loss and blistering of skin.

Among the strategies to reduce exposure to perchloroethylene outlined in the book are preventative maintenance and control of leaks in dry cleaning equipment, proper ventilation and good work practices.

The new publication also provides information on the health hazards and current regulations, as well as recommendations on methods for reducing worker exposures. It provides information on training, personal protective equipment and some of the new technologies available in the dry cleaning industry.

In addition, the publication addresses how good work practices can greatly minimize worker exposure to perchloroethylene vapors. For example, peak exposure levels can be reduced by several hundred parts per million simply by proper positioning of the head and body during transfer operations. Other important work practices to reduce exposures are listed in an accompanying fact sheet.

OSHA offers the following work practice tips for dry cleaning operators:

  • Do not load the machine past its capacity.
  • Do not open the machine door when the cycle is running.
  • Keep the machine door closed as much as possible.
  • Do not "shortcut" the drying cycle by removing garments from the machine before the cycle is finished.
  • Keep head and face turned away from machine door and clothes when removing solvent-laden clothes from the washer.
  • Avoid manually handling perchloroethylene. Instead, use a closed piping system that delivers perchloroethylene directly to the machine drum.
  • Wait until the machine and solvent are cold before performing maintenance.
  • Use perchloroethylene-free spotting agents, if possible.
  • Use spotting agents sparingly.
  • Clean up perchloroethylene spills immediately. (The shop should have in place a plan for safely responding to spills.)
  • Store containers of perchloroethylene and perchloroethylene wastes in tightly sealed containers.
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