Last updated: September 27, 2018

What Does Sorbent Mean?

Sorbents are materials that are used to absorb liquids or gases, and they are often the most effective way to efficiently capture a chemical that may otherwise be difficult to collect, such as oil spilled over water.

In an occupational health and safety context, the chief use of sorbents is as a way to absorb harmful or potentially harmful chemicals that have entered the work environment either due to an accident or as an unavoidable by-product of the work being done.

Safeopedia Explains Sorbent

Sorbents are a vital component of industrial hygiene testing in workplaces—industrial hygienists can use sorbent material to sample chemicals in the workplace environment for subsequent hazard analysis. Natural oil-absorbing sorbents can retain between three and 20 times their weight, while synthetic sorbents can retain up to 70 times their weight.

In an occupational health and safety context, sorbent material is applied to hazardous gases or liquid solvents so that they may easily be removed from the environment. At the simplest level, this may refer to the use of a sponge to collect spilled water—a potential fall hazard—off of a floor.

Specific sorbent material may be required as part of the spill kit requirements that OSHA mandates for the presence of certain chemicals in the workplace. For example, the use of mercury in a workplace requires the presence of a spill kit that contains amalgamation powder, a sorbent material made with zinc dust and citric acid that prevents mercury from emitting toxic vapors.

Many respirators, such as gas masks, protect workers by placing a barrier of sorbent material between the worker and the environment. The sorbent material absorbs any harmful gases and vapors before they can be inhaled by the worker.

Sorbent tubes are the other major use-case for sorbents in occupational health and safety. Developed by the National Institute of Occupational Health and Safety (NIOSH), sorbent tubes are used to collect a sample of the gases and vapors that are present in a given workplace for testing purposes. Because different sorbents absorb different chemicals, sorbent tubes are a reliable way to collect separate samples of the various chemical substances that might be present in the workplace.


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