Bitumens Occupational Exposures

Bitumens Occupational Exposures


Inhalation of bitumen fumes and dusts is the most important route of occupational exposure.[1] For bitumens used in cooler temperatures, such as cutback bitumens, blended bitumens, and bitumen emulsions, regular skin contact may also occur.[2] CAREX Canada estimates that approximately 44,000 Canadians are exposed to bitumens in their workplaces.


The largest industrial groups exposed are highway, bridge, and street construction, followed by foundation, structure, and building exterior contractors. The petroleum and coal products manufacturing industry is also significantly exposed since bitumens are initially produced and processed there.

The largest occupational groups exposed are construction trades helpers and labourers, followed by roofers and shinglers, and heavy equipment operators. Other occupations potentially exposed to bitumens include those employed in refineries, asphalt mixing plants, and roofing material manufacturing,[2,3] as well as workers involved in transporting and storaging bitumens.[1]

Strategies to reduce exposures include selecting the correct kettle type/size, using low fuming asphalt, and using temperature control devices to reduce asphalt fume emissions.[4]

Prevalence Estimate

Results show that 44,000 Canadians are exposed to bitumens in their workplaces; 95% of these workers are male. The largest exposed industrial groups are in the broad category of construction. Also important was the petroleum and coal products manufacturing industry (where bitumens are produced and processed into roofing and paving materials).

When exposure is examined by occupation, the largest exposed group is construction trades helpers and labourers (15,000 workers exposed), followed by roofers and shinglers (13,000 workers exposed), and heavy equipment operators (11,000 workers exposed).

Workers exposed to bitumens by industry

Workers exposed to bitumens by region

Click the second tab to view total number of workers exposed.

* = < 50 workers
Methods and Data

Our Occupational Approach page outlines the general approach used to calculate prevalence and exposure level estimates for workplace exposures.

Data Sources

Data used in developing the occupational estimates for bitumens were collected from several sources:

  1. The Canadian Workplace Exposure Database (CWED) contains approximately 300 measurements for bitumens exposure. These measurements were collected during the years 1984 to 1993 in Ontario workplaces.
  2. Canadian and US scientific peer reviewed publications that addressed bitumens exposure in Canada and the United States.
  3. Grey literature including technical reports from governments and international bodies, as well as industry reports on the paving and roofing industries.

Prevalence Estimate Method

CAREX defines exposure to bitumens somewhat differently than for other agents. In the most recent IARC monograph focusing on bitumens, exposure was defined as it links to specific jobs and tasks; therefore we have taken a very similar approach in our updated exposure estimates. We define exposure to bitumens in the following ways:

  1. Working with oxidized bitumens and their emissions during roofing;
  2. Working with straight-run bitumens and their emissions during road paving;
  3. Production of roofing and paving materials.

IARC does not include the production of roofing and paving materials, but this exposure scenario is mentioned often in the literature, and heating of the materials is very likely to occur in these settings and cause similar emissions, and thus similar exposures to workers. IARC does, however, include exposure during mastic asphalt work, but this is not known to occur in Canada so we have not considered it further in our estimates.1

Since a wide variety of compounds are released into the air when bitumens are heated, respiratory exposure to bitumens have been studied by measuring many agents. These agents include total particulate, volatile organic compounds, fumes released as cyclohexane- or benzene-soluble matter, and various PAHs. For this reason, there is likely to be some overlap between PAH exposure and bitumens exposure in our CAREX estimates.

To determine the number of workers potentially exposed to bitumens at work, CAREX occupational exposure experts used methods previously established in other peer-reviewed CAREX projects in Europe, in addition to new information available in the recent IARC evaluation of bitumens. A series of steps were taken to assign exposure proportions to occupations and industries at risk of exposure to bitumens.

  1. Occupations and industries at risk of possible exposure to bitumens were identified using any combination of data sources described above.
  2. The total number of workers in each identified occupation and industry intersection was obtained from Statistics Canada 2006 census data.
  3. A percentage of workers exposed was assigned to that occupation and industry intersection. Percentages were determined by consultation with existing evidence in the data sources, previously established methods from the Europe CAREX estimates and the expert judgment of CAREX occupational hygienists.
  4. The number of workers in the identified group is multiplied by the assigned percentage to calculate the prevalence estimate of workers exposed to bitumens.


1. EMAA/HSE Working Group. The Mastic Asphalt Industry – A Global Perspective. 2010.

1. US National Library of Medicine. Hazardous Substances Data Bank (HSDB) (Search term: ‘Asphalt’)
2. International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC). Monograph summary, Volume 103 (2013) (PDF)
3. International Program on Chemical Safety (IPCS) INCHEM. Concise International Chemical Assessment Document: Asphalt (Bitumen) (2004)

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