Plant & Works Engineering
Health, safety and the environment
Published:  08 January, 2015

The following is an edited extract from the Coxmoor Publishing Company book titled ‘Hydraulic Fluids – A Practical Guide’, by Allan Barber, Nigel Battersby and David Phillips, published in association with the BFPA. This article provides some useful health, safety and the environment-related advice concerning the use of hydraulic fluid.

In many countries, legislation requires that risk assessments are carried out before materials, including hydraulic fluids, are handled. In the UK, for example, the COSHH (Control of Substances Hazardous to Health) regulations convert into UK law a number of European Union (EU) Directives designed to protect the health and safety of workers from the risks related to chemical agents at work.

Much of the required information can be found in the safety data sheet (SDS – sometimes called the material safety data sheet, MSDS) supplied with the fluid. In the EU safety data sheets are produced in a standard format, consisting of 16 sections. The section where the relevant information can be found is discussed below (e.g., Exposure Control/Personal Protection – Section 8).

Another useful source of information is European Technical Report EN 14489: Fire-resistant hydraulic fluids – Classification and specification – Guidelines on selection for the protection of safety, health and the environment.

Health considerations

Avoiding, or minimising, contact with the fluid is the best way to prevent health problems. If an accident occurs, appropriate first aid measures can be found in the SDS (Section 4). Any specific health hazards associated with the fluid will be detailed in Sections 3 and 11 of the SDS.

Exposure limits and controls, together with recommended personal protective equipment (PPE) when handling the fluid, can be found in Section 8. It should be noted that exposure limits can vary between countries. Standard precautions when using any hydraulic fluid should include wearing overalls, blogs, safety glasses or facemasks and good personal hygiene. Overalls should be laundered regularly.

Skin contact

If contact with the fluid cannot be avoided, positive steps to maintain the skin in good condition should be taken. These include regular washing and mild skin cleanser (not caustic soaps or solvents) and applying moisturising cream. Oily swabs or rags should not be used for wiping hands. If there are any concerns, medical advice should be sought.

Eye contact

If hydraulic fluid is accidentally splashed into the eye, it should be flushed with copious quantities of water, as quickly as possible. Medical attention should be sought immediately.


Hydraulic fluids are not normally considered to be an inhalation risk. However, there are occupational exposure limits for mineral oil mists and local exhaust ventilation should be in place if vapours, mists or aerosols are likely to be produced during operation.


Another potential risk to health arises when using high water-based (HFA) hydraulic fluids, which can be supplied as a concentrate for mixing with water on site. Water contains micro-organisms, which may become a health hazard. For example, the bacteria which cause Legionnaires’ Disease can thrive under these conditions. As a result, UK legislation requires the risk assessment of installations containing water at 20degC or over, where spray or droplets can be formed.

Safety considerations

There are hazards associated with the use of fluid under high pressure, which have been previously addressed in recent editions of Plant & Works Engineering as part of this regular Top Tips feature. Other hazards (e.g., flammability) are detailed in Section 3 of the SDS while physical and chemical properties of the fluid (e.g., flashpoint and density) can be found in Section 9. The SDS will also provide guidance on appropriate firefighting measures (Section 5), clean-up procedures (Section 6), handling and storage (Section 7) and materials and conditions to avoid (Section 10). Information can also be found in the SDS on whether or not the hydraulic fluid is dangerous for transport by road/rail, sea and air (Section 14).

In areas where there is a significant fire hazard, or where the consequences of a fire would be disastrous, the use of a fire-resistant hydraulic fluid (ISO type – HF) should be considered. It should be noted that whilst these fluids have a high flashpoint, this characteristic alone should not be used as the basis for selection.

If a hydraulic fluid is used in machinery operating in the food and beverage industry, there is the potential for contact with foodstuffs. In this case, consideration should be given to using an H1 ‘food-grade’ hydraulic fluid (lubricant with potential for incidental food contact), as approved by NSF (National Sanitary Foundation) International.

Environmental considerations

The SDS will give guidance on the correct procedures for disposing of the waste fluid and container (Section 13) and the clean-up procedures in the event of a spill (Section 6). Section 12 should give information on whether the fluid can be broken down quickly in the environment (‘readily biodegradable’), slowly over time (‘inherently biodegradable’) or is likely to persist. Data may also be given in this section on the toxicity of the fluid to aquatic organisms (‘ecotoxicity’).

For equipment operating in environmentally sensitive areas (e.g., rivers and canals, coastal defences and forests), there may be the need to use an environmentally acceptable hydraulic fluid (type HE). ISO 4001 provides a structured framework specifically designed to achieve continual environmental improvement.

To obtain a copy of ‘Hydraulic Fluids – A Practical Guide’, contact the BFPA on 01608 647900 or email: