Asphalt fume exposure during road construction

What is the potential risk?

Workers who work with asphalt products may be exposed to vapours and fumes that contain hazardous chemicals, such as benzo[a]pyrene, bitumen, and other polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), which are recognized carcinogens.

Asphalt is a cement-like product made from refined crude oil that is used in road construction for paving and road repairs. When asphalt is heated during road construction, it releases vapours and fumes, which workers may inhale. Exposed workers may experience symptoms such as eye and respiratory irritation, headaches, and nausea. Long-term exposure to asphalt fumes may also put workers at risk of certain types of cancer.

There is a growing foundation of scientific evidence that suggests that inhaling asphalt fumes is associated with an increased risk of lung cancer. The International Agency for Research on Cancer currently lists bitumen as a possible human carcinogen.

Which industries may be at risk?

  • Road construction
  • Asphalt manufacture
  • Local government

How can I reduce the risk in my workplace?

As an employer, you need to know if there is the potential for the risk identified in this advisory to be present in your workplace. It’s your responsibility to regularly inspect your workplace, and to ensure that your safety procedures and practices control the risk. The following information highlights some of the sections of the Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) Regulation and Guidelines that are most relevant to this risk.

Benzo[a]pyrene and other PAHs are substances for which measures must be taken to keep a worker’s exposure to a level as low as is reasonably achievable. An exposure control plan (ECP) must include information on the risks of exposure to volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and appropriate controls if workers are exposed to these contaminants.

Section 5.54 of the Regulation requires that employers implement an ECP when:

  1. exposure monitoring under Section 5.53(3) indicates that a worker is or may be exposed to an air contaminant in excess of 50 percent of its exposure limit
  2. measurement is not possible at 50 percent of the applicable exposure limit
  3. it’s otherwise required by the Regulation

Section 5.57 of the Regulation requires that worker exposure to carcinogens and sensitizers must be maintained at levels as low as reasonably achievable below the exposure limit. These substances must be replaced, if practicable, with a material that reduces the risk to workers.

Additional ECP requirements are also specified in sections 5.55–5.59.

Publication Date: Jan 2016 Asset type: Risk Advisory Reference: RA 2016-04