Metalworking Fluid Best Practices Released in the U.K.

    Lubricants are essential to safe and efficient metalworking processes, but the downside is that under certain circumstances they can be hazardous to health. Nick Augusteijn talked to the United Kingdoms lubricant trade body about its investigation into the risks and solutions for safer handling of these substances.

    In April 2018, the United Kingdom Lubricants Associations metalworking fluid product stewardship group and the countrys Health and Safety Executive launched the Good Practice Guidance for Managing Metalworking Fluids. Aimed at reducing work-related respiratory and skin diseases in those exposed to water-based fluids, the guidance sets out to establish good practices for both supervisors and the operators managing those substances.

    The U.K.s metalworking industry comprises an estimated 11,100 companies and contributes 10.7 billion annually to national gross domestic product, according to the U.K. Metals Council, an industry trade association. The country is the fifth-leading metalworking fluid market in Europe with current demand accounting for 7 percent of the European total, according to consultancy Kline & Co.


    Metalworking fluids provide many functions in metalworking processes, from reducing heat and friction to flushing away metal particles during machining and grinding. They are made from a variety of substances, including naphthenic and paraffinic base oils as well as semi-synthetic and synthetic fluids. They also contain a variety of emulsifiers, anti-weld agents, rust inhibitors, extreme pressure additives, pH balancing substances and biocides. These additives, along with potential fungal and microbial contaminants found in water-based fluids, combine to create a potentially hazardous working environment if not managed correctly.

    The main health problems experienced by people working with metalworking fluids include dermatitis, with a minimum of 200 cases reported per year in the U.K, and respiratory diseases including asthma due to exposure to mist from water-mix wash fluids used to clean machined components, warns the HSE. There is also a risk of contracting several types of cancer, although this has declined as modern neat oils have become more refined.

    Investigative Efforts

    LubesnGreases spoke to stewardship group chairman Kevin Duncan about the new guidance and contributions that the peer-reviewed document can make towards creating a safer working environment. Weve always had the approach within our group to try and update position papers on specific issues or concerns within the industry. This guide is a way to put it all together in one document, Duncan said.

    Established in the late 1990s, the stewardship group was set up to look at different health and safety issues, as well as potential regulatory changes within the sector. Originally it comprised three groups: metalworking fluid users, manufacturers and suppliers of components used to make fluids.

    Twenty or 30 years ago, the knowledge and understanding of metalworking fluids was relatively underdeveloped from an end user point of view, the people that use metalworking fluids day in and day out, Duncan explained.

    You dont actually come into contact with products like hydraulic fluids and gear oils on a regular basis, he continued. Filling or topping up is the most contact you would have. But youre in contact with metalworking fluids on a daily basis, so we thought that needed to be a focus area.

    Around 10 years ago, representatives from the HSE joined the stewardship group, a move Duncan labelled mutually beneficial. They saw the benefit of this as they could get closer to the industry that they were having to regulate, while we were able to have some influence within the HSE to increase education and understanding on how to use metalworking fluids.

    The new guide has been several years in the making, building on existing practices and drawing on the insights of manufacturers, engineering companies, HSE experts, workshop managers and health professionals. This was a way of trying to give an overall guidance that wasnt slanted towards a certain problem, Duncan added.

    According to Duncan, much of the information contained in this guidance was already in the public domain. Information on skin diseases and respiratory problems that are associated with metalworking fluids are known and understood. There are also existing guidelines on the HSE website that are act as metalworking fluid essentials. Examples include Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations, originally launched in 2002, and Risk Assessment – A Brief Guide to Controlling Risks in the Workplace, released in 2014.

    While previous publications described good practices for various aspects of fluids, none combined everything from purchase to disposal of metalworking fluids into a single document. The new guidance gives a more in-depth understanding of what to do with fluids, from the cradle to the grave, covering their full lifecycle and how to work safely with them, Duncan explained. How to actually use the fluids is the key to this document, he said.

    While there wasnt one particular incident that prompted the stewardship group and HSE to produce a guide, there have been publicized issues with metalworking fluids. One such came out of an investigation into cases of extrinsic allergic alveolitis in employees of engine components manufacturer Powertrain Ltd.

    Following a two-year study into the exposure to microbial contaminants of metalworking and wash fluids, the HSE found 102 cases of work-related respiratory diseases, both probable and definitive, of occupational asthma and extrinsic allergic alveolitis caused by the use of water-based metalworking fluids and the levels of mist during operations. Powertrain closed its doors in 2005 after filing for bankruptcy earlier that year.

    Legislative Efforts

    The new guidance also came about as a result of a push by fluid suppliers and the HSE, knowing that changes to legislation have been ongoing for a number of years, with certain chemicals becoming less usable and restrictions becoming tighter. The use of formaldehyde and biocides has become more controlled under the European Unions Biocidal Products Directive, Duncan pointed out.

    There is more and more investigation on differed molecules as theyre being registered through to 2018. This guidance gives advice, a better understanding and provides a greater depth of knowledge, Duncan assured. When someone buys metalworking fluids and they see there is a restricted chemical included in the material safety data sheets, they dont have to panic because they have the understanding of the full formulation and how to use it. They know what the restrictions are and what they should be doing to try and minimize health issues associated with these fluids.

    According to Duncan, this work was part of an effort to interpret the information that is added to material safety data sheets to demystify fluids and facilitate a greater understanding about them. The more understanding and education people have on the risks, the more likely they are going to use metalworking fluids in a safe way. And therefore the long term [benefits] are going to be there.

    The new guidance does not carry the force of law or even policy recommendations. That said, Duncan nonetheless hopes end users take it seriously and that they use their fluids in appropriate ways. This means viewing fluids as a major part of their processes.

    Historically, the thought has always been, Oh, it is just a coolant, it is not as important as the engineering part of our manufacturing. The coolant, in fact, is an integral part of their processes and, if used and monitored correctly, can actually improve the process, reduce downtime and lead to a safer working environment for the operators. So there are a multitude of different areas where this guide can improve their processes, creating a better working environment overall, Duncan underlined.

    Despite the stewardship groups work to raise awareness of safe handling, another factor may be pivotal in reducing metalworking fluid hazards, and that is technology. New and evolving methods of machining, metalworking and processing could dampen demand for metalworking fluids, George Morvey, industry manager at Kline & Co.s energy practice, told LubesnGreases. Minimum quantity lubrication, improved maintenance practices and the use of longer lasting semi- and full-synthetic fluids can suppress volumetric demand and growth. Much has been covered in the industry and I suspect more to come in terms of 3D printing, additive manufacturing of parts, components and pieces in certain industries and its impact on metalworking fluid demand, Morvey stressed.