Hydraulic fluids are liquids that lubricate machines like car transmissions, power steering systems, power brakes, tractors, forklifts, bulldozers and garbage trucks. Hydraulic fluids contain chemical compounds including oils, esters, silicones, butanol and corrosion inhibitors. The most common types of chemicals used in hydraulic fluids are polyalphaolefins (PAO), phosphate esters and mineral oil. Although hydraulic fluids are necessary to lubricate machinery, working with the fluids demands certain safety precautions.
People can become exposed to the chemicals in hydraulic fluids via touch, ingestion or inhalation. People who often handle hydraulic fluids have reported weakness of the hands and skin irritation. To avoid irritation, wash contaminated skin and keep your clothing clean. There are no reports of definitive evidence of the hazards of hydraulic fluid inhalation, though ingesting these fluids can cause intestinal bleeding, pneumonia or death. Similar to ingestion, fluids can be accidentally injected into the skin. This can happen when the high-pressure hydraulic system hose is disconnected and injects leaking toxic fluid through the skin.
If hydraulic fluids leak or spill, the chemicals can stay on top of the soil or sink into the ground. If the chemicals enter a body of water, they will sink to the bottom and can stay there for more than a year. Aquatic life can absorb the toxic hydraulic fluid, causing illness or death to the animal or anything higher on the food chain. For example, a hawk that eats a contaminated fish could become ill. To avoid environmental hazards, there is a biodegradable hydraulic fluid option, but it is more expensive and thus not widely used.
When working with hydraulic fluid, it is sometimes heated to high temperatures, and because most petroleum-based hydraulic fluids will burn, explosions and burns can occur. To avoid fires, fluid and materials soaked in fluid should be stored in sealed metal containers and disposed of.
Fluid Texture Hazards
Although the slimy texture of hydraulic fluids may not seem like a hazard, a spill can cause a person to slip and fall. Fluid on the hands can cause a person to slip while climbing on a machine or cause the operator to lose steering control.
Safe with Proper Handling
Although hydraulic fluids allow many machines to function, there are numerous hazards involved, like skin irritation, environmental damage, fires, explosions and a slippery workplace. However, with proper knowledge of these hazards, working with hydraulic fluid can be safe.