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Last updated: November 10, 2018

What Does Smoke Mean?

Smoke is a collection of solid particles or liquid droplets emitted by the combustion or heat-related decomposition (pyrolysis) of a material and mixed into a quantity of air. Some definitions also include the constituent gasses that are emitted through combustion as being part of smoke.

Safeopedia Explains Smoke

As a collection of solid particles or liquid droplets, smoke is technically an aerosol. Because smoke can be generated through the ignition of a variety of substances, it may contain a wide range of possible chemical substances. The occupational health and safety guidelines for exposure to smoke vary depending on the substances involved; many types of smoke are considered significant health hazards.

Occupational exposure to smoke can involve exposure to smoke created through both unintentional and intentional workplace processes. Deliberately generated smoke is smoke that is generated as a normal byproduct of industrially useful mechanical processes, such as the exhaust created by the internal combustion engines that are present in most vehicles.

Unintentionally generated smoke includes the smoke created by accidental fires or overheated chemical substances. Workplace accidents resulting in smoke generation are a significant workplace hazard, as smoke inhalation can result in major injury or death. Workers in the fire industry and other emergency services who come into contact with fire environments face an inherently high risk of occupational smoke exposure due to the nature of their profession.

A common form of smoke encountered in industrial settings is found in diesel exhaust (DE). Recognized as a health hazard by OSHA, DE is classified as a Group 1 human carcinogen by the International Agency for Cancer Research and can also lead to increased risk of cardiovascular and respiratory diseases. Diesel exhaust smoke is generated by engines used in a variety of heavy equipment industries. Occupations with potential exposure to DE include miners, construction workers, railroad workers, oil and gas workers, truck drivers, farm workers, and auto-maintenance workers, among others.

Occupational exposure to smoke is managed in-part by regulations that place limits on the amount of harmful substances that can be generated by combustion engines and other industrial equipment. As smoke typically contains multiple chemical substances, the permissible exposure limits for a particular type of smoke are defined by OSHA through the exposure limits of its individual chemical constituents. Specific industry safety organizations, such as the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), have exposure standards for types of smoke (e.g. diesel exhaust) generated through normal industry practices.


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