Cutting Oil Exposure


Cutting oil exposure occurs when workers come into contact with unsafe levels of cutting oil. Exposure can be chronic or acute and can happen through direct contact, ingestion, or inhalation.


Cutting oil is a dark, petroleum-smelling liquid used in metalworking and with machines. Cutting oil is one of many types of metalworking fluids used to carry away debris, protect work surfaces, and to prolong the life of tools during machining and grinding. It does this by reducing friction through lubrication and by carrying heat away from a particular source.


Causes and symptoms

Cutting oil exposure can happen in three main ways. Direct contact takes place when workers do not use proper safety equipment and dip their hands into the cutting oil, flood the machines, or touch a part of the machine that is covered with cutting oil. Direct contact can also occur when a worker is splashed due an improper or absent splashguard.

Typically, coming into contact with cutting oil one time is not a major health concern for workers; however, chronic direct contact can cause skin disease, such as irritant contact dermatitis or even cancer. Symptoms of direct contact exposure include irritation, itching, burning, and discoloration. Workers can become disabled due to the damage done to their skin over time, especially in the hands.

Respiratory contact occurs when cutting oil mist is breathed in. The mist inhaled may be a mixture of the fluid itself, metal particles, and bacteria or fungi that have developed in the fluid over time. All of these aspects of cutting oil mist can be a health threat. A worker is most likely to be exposed to cutting oil mist when working directly with metalworking machines in areas not properly enclosed or ventilated.

Workers who are routinely exposed to cutting oil mist have a high risk of developing asthma, bronchitis, and irritation to their respiratory track, which can lead to difficulty breathing. Breathing in the bacteria or fungi growing in the cutting oil can cause influenza-like symptoms such as a fever or worsen the symptoms of asthma. Additionally, acute cutting oil mist exposure can irritate the eyes, nose, and throat, cause headaches, dizziness, and drowsiness.

Less common than exposure to cutting oil through inhalation and direct contact is cutting oil ingestion through the mouth. This typically occurs when hands and fingers are not properly washed before eating or smoking, or when eating or drinking takes place in the work area and the food becomes contaminated with cutting oil. Ingesting cutting oil can cause severe irritation to the digestive tract, vomiting, and diarrhea.

Chronic exposure to cutting oil has been linked to increased risk of cancer and lung disease. This risk, although still present, has decreased with new technology and better control technologies that increase safety. The use of highly refined oils and the substitution of safer alternatives for cancer-causing material also have played a role in reducing the cancer rate in people exposed to cutting oil.

Short in duration. Often used to mean both short and severe when used to describe a disease or symptom.
A disease in which the air passages of the lungs become inflamed and narrowed.
Constantly recurring over a long period of time.
Irritant contact dermatitis—
A type of skin disease that develops when the skin is repeatedly exposed over a long period to acids or alkaline materials that irritate the skin. Symptoms include red rashes, dry skin, and cuts.


As of 2012, there was no approved method of monitoring body tissues or fluids to determine the level of oil cutting an individual has been exposed to. Physical examinations, occupational history interviews, and selected laboratory tests, may be used to determine what affect oil cutting exposure has had on workers. In some states, examinations are mandatory and must be provided by the employer. In areas where there is no law, and risk is minimal, it is recommended that workers are examined every three to five years.


Symptoms of acute cutting oil exposure typically disappear within a few days of the source of the irritation being removed. Skin, especially on the hands, which is exposed to cutting oil should be regularly washed with warm, soapy water. Someone who is experiencing dizziness due to acute cutting oil exposure should be removed from the area and taken into fresh air.

Symptoms from chronic cutting oil exposure must be treated on an individual basis, dependent on what problems the worker is experiencing. Workers who are exposed to cutting oil on a regular basis should work with their doctor on how to manage symptoms and slow the progression of diseases related to working with cutting oil.




Good safety measures are the best prevention against cutting oil exposure. This includes following proper safety protocol when transporting, storing, and using cutting oil. Safety equipment, such as splash-guards, gloves, overalls, aprons, goggles, and face shields, should be used whenever working with cutting oil. Areas where cutting oil is used need to have proper ventilation and an enclosed area with cutting oil mist should be given the proper time needed to ventilate before being opened. A respirator should also be worn when working in an area with a high level of cutting oil mist.

Bare skin, especially hands, should not be exposed to cutting oil. This includes avoiding not only direct contact with cutting oil, but also dirty rags covered in oil or getting oil on the inside of work gloves. Eating and drinking should never be done in an area where cutting oil is used and hands should be carefully washed between using cutting oil and eating or smoking. Barrier moisture creams can limit the amount of contact cutting oil has with the skin, however they are not a replacement for safety equipment and precaution.

Public health role and response

The United States National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (OSHA) sets the permissible limit to mineral oil mist (including cutting oil) at five mg per cubic meter of air, when averaged over an eight-hour work day. OSHA also recommends five mg per cubic meter of air when over a ten-hour workday and up to ten milligrams per cubic meter of air if exposure is under fifteen minutes and does not take place more than four times each day. This guideline is similar to the guidelines set forth by the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists. Employers should follow these limits in order to protect workers, and workers should report any employer who is exposing their staff to unsafe levels of cutting oil mist or not providing proper safety equipment.

See also Asthma ; Bronchitis ; National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health ; Smoking .



Byers, Jerry P., ed. Metalworking Fluids. 2nd ed. Boca Raton, Florida: CRC, 2006.


Geraut, Christian, et al. “Occupational Diseases Due to Cooling Fluids.” European Journal of Dermatology 21, no. 2 (2011): 162–69. (accessed November 1, 2012).


Health and Safety Executive. “Working Safely with Metalworking Fluids.” (accessed November 1, 2012).

Occupational Safety & Health Administration. “Metalworking Fluids: Safety and Health Best Practices Manual.” (accessed November 1, 2012).

Occupational Safety & Health Administration. “Occupational Safety and Health Guidelines for Oil Mist.” (accessed November 1, 2012).


Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, 4770 Buford Hwy NE, Atlanta, GA, 30341, (800) 232-4636; TTY: (888) 232-6348,, .

United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 1600 Clifton Road, Atlanta, GA, 30333, (404) 639-3534, (800) CDC-INFO (800-232-4636); TTY: (888) 232-6348,, .

United States Department of Labor Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA), 200 Constitution Avenue, Washington, DC, 20210, (800) 321-OSHA (6742); TTY: 1-877-889-5627, .

Tish Davidson, AM

  This information is not a tool for self-diagnosis or a substitute for professional care.