University Safety and Assurances

Formaldehyde and Formalin Solutions


Formaldehyde (HCHO) and formalin solutions are commonly found in the chemical and biological laboratory, principally for specimen preservation and tissue perfusion.

Long-term exposure to low levels of formaldehyde may cause respiratory difficulty, eczema, and sensitization. Formaldehyde causes irritation of the eyes, nose, throat, respiratory system; lacrimation (discharge of tears); cough; wheezing; and dermatitis. Formaldehyde is classified as a potential human carcinogen and has been linked to nasal and lung cancer, and with possible links to brain cancer and leukemia. Formaldehyde exposure is most common through gas-phase inhalation. However, it can also occur through liquid-phase skin absorption.

This OSHA Formaldehyde Standard (29 CFR 1910.1048) became effective for all laboratories on September 2, 1988. There were other phase-in dates for engineering and work practice controls; medical removal protection; hazard communication and training. UWM is subject to the OSHA standard per Department of Safety and Professional Services Chapter 332.

The standard applies to all occupational exposures to formaldehyde, i.e. from formaldehyde gas, its solutions, and materials that release formaldehyde at UWM. The standard includes requirements for:

  • exposure monitoring;
  • engineering controls and work practices;
  • respiratory and PPE protection;
  • hygiene protection and emergency preparedness;
  • medical surveillance monitoring;
  • hazard communication, labeling and training; and
  • record keeping

Exposure Monitoring:

The standard requires UWM to assure that no employee is exposed to an airborne concentration of formaldehyde which exceeds 0.75 parts formaldehyde per million parts of air (0.75 ppm) as an 8-hour TWA. UWM must also assure that no employee is exposed to an airborne concentration of formaldehyde which exceeds two parts formaldehyde per million parts of air (2 ppm) as a 15-minute short term exposure level (STEL).

The standard requires that UWM monitor employees to determine their exposure to formaldehyde. The exception: Where UWM documents, using objective data, that the presence of formaldehyde or formaldehyde-releasing products in the workplace cannot result in airborne concentrations of formaldehyde that would cause any employee to be exposed at or above the action level or the STEL under foreseeable conditions of use, UWM will not be required to measure employee exposure to formaldehyde. Examples of activities which may result in exposure levels of concern include solution formulation, specimen preservation, tissue perfusion and chemical hazardous waste operations.

The initial monitoring process shall be repeated each time there is a change in production, equipment, process, personnel, or control measures which may result in new or additional exposure to formaldehyde. OSHA specifies repeat monitoring if the exposure exceeded either the Action Level or the STEL.

Occupational Hygienic Limits (2001) for Formaldehyde:

OSHA PEL-TWA (8-hour): 0.75 ppm
OSHA STEL (15 minute exposure): 2 ppm
OSHA Action Level: 0.5 ppm 8 hour-TWA

NIOSH REL (8-hour): 0.016 ppm
NIOSH Ceiling (15 minute exposure): 0.1 ppm
IDLH: 20 ppm

ACGIH STEL: 0.3 ppm

Other: ACGIH Sensitizer and ACGIH A2 Carcinogen (suspected human carcinogen); National Toxicology Program (NTP) suspect human carcinogen; International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) Group 2A (probably carcinogenic to humans)

Odor Threshold: varies, odor may not be detectable at the PEL/TLV. Olfactory fatigue may occur.

Engineering Controls and Work Practices:

The standard requires UWM to institute engineering and work practice controls to reduce and maintain employee exposures to formaldehyde at or below the TWA and the STEL. The exception: Whenever UWM has established that feasible engineering and work practice controls cannot reduce employee exposure to or below either of the PELs, UWM shall apply these controls to reduce employee exposures to the extent feasible and shall supplement them with respirators which satisfy this standard.

Hygiene Protection and Emergency Preparedness:

All contact of the eyes and skin with liquids containing 1 percent or more formaldehyde shall be prevented by the use of chemical protective clothing made of material impervious to formaldehyde and the use of other personal protective equipment, such as goggles and face shields, as appropriate to the operation.

Contact with irritating or sensitizing materials (read formaldehyde) shall be prevented to the extent necessary to eliminate the hazard.

Medical Surveillance Monitoring:

The standard requires medical surveillance programs for all employees exposed to formaldehyde at concentrations at or exceeding the action level (read 0.5 ppm 8-hour TWA) or exceeding the STEL (read 2 ppm).

Hazard Communication, Labeling and Training:

Containers of formaldehyde solutions or specimens must include on the label: respiratory sensitizer, and shall contain the words "Potential Cancer Hazard."

The standard requires that UWM develop, implement, and maintain at the workplace, a written hazard communication program for formaldehyde exposures in the workplace, which at a minimum describes how the requirements specified in this paragraph for labels and other forms of warning and material safety data sheets, and paragraph (n) for employee information and training, will be met. In the absence of specific written policies, departments shall follow the requirements of this document.

The standard requires UWM to ensure all employees who are assigned to workplaces where there is exposure to formaldehyde participate in a training program, except that where the employer can show, using objective data, that employees are not exposed to formaldehyde at or above 0.1 ppm, the employer is not required to provide training.

OSHA Hazard Communication Requirements Specific to Formaldehyde Include:

  • UWM shall provide such information and training to employees at the time of initial assignment, and whenever a new exposure to formaldehyde is introduced into the work area. The training shall be repeated at least annually.
  • Training shall include a description of the potential health hazards associated with exposure to formaldehyde and a description of the signs and symptoms of exposure to formaldehyde.
  • Training shall include a discussion of the contents of this regulation and the contents of the Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS). Specific health hazards that the employer shall address are: cancer hazard, irritation and sensitization of the skin and respiratory system, eye and throat irritation, and acute toxicity.
  • Training shall include the purpose for and a description of the medical surveillance program required by this standard, including instructions to immediately report to the employer the development of any adverse signs or symptoms that the employee suspects is attributable to formaldehyde exposure.
  • Training shall include a description of operations in the work area where formaldehyde is present and an explanation of the safe work practices appropriate for limiting exposure to formaldehyde in each job.
  • Training shall include the purpose for, proper use of, and limitations of personal protective clothing and equipment.
  • Training shall include instructions for the handling of spills, emergencies, and clean-up procedures at UWM.
  • Training shall include an explanation of the importance of engineering and work practice controls for employee protection and any necessary instruction in the use of these controls. This includes function and proper use of the laboratory chemical fume hood.
  • Training shall include a review of emergency procedures including the specific duties or assignments of each UWM employee in the event of an emergency.
  • All training materials shall be available in writing and made available to the employee. In the absence of specific training documents, departments shall follow the requirements of this document and other applicable laboratory policies, procedures and good lab practices.

Recordkeeping Requirements:

The standard requires that UWM obtain exposure measurements for potential formaldehyde exposure. UWM shall establish and maintain an accurate record of all measurements taken to monitor employee exposure to formaldehyde.

Monitoring records shall include: the date of measurement; the operation being monitored; the methods of sampling and analysis and evidence of their accuracy and precision; the number, durations, time, and results of samples taken; the types of protective devices worn; and the names, job classifications, social security numbers, and exposure estimates of the employees whose exposures are represented by the actual monitoring results. Where UWM has determined that no monitoring is required under this standard, the employer shall maintain a record of the objective data relied upon to support the determination that no employee is exposed to formaldehyde at or above the action level.

Exposure records and determinations shall be kept for at least 30 years. Medical records shall be kept for the duration of employment plus 30 years. The Department of University Safety and Assurances maintains occupational exposure records at UWM.

Respiratory Protection:

Employees required to wear a respirator shall be included in the UWM Respiratory Protection Program. There are specific respiratory protection requirements for formaldehyde exposure, including routine change-out of cartridges and the type of respirator that must be worn.


For further information on chemical safety, contact your professor, supervisor or principal investigator.