Workers use thousands of chemicals daily in the workplace. Companies must ensure that their employees abide by best practices for working with chemicals safely. Every year, workers die from exposure to harmful substances or inhalation of toxic substances. In the United States in 2020, 50 people died from inhalation of a harmful chemical.
What are the Benefits of Working with Chemicals Safely?
There are many benefits to working with chemicals safely in the workplace.
Reduced injuries and illnesses
When a company has a high-quality chemical safety program established and manages its chemicals correctly, employees are less likely to be injured or killed by chemical exposures. In addition, employees that work with chemicals safely will avoid injuries or illnesses from inhalation, skin contact, ingestion, or injection.
Save money and improve productivity
Minimizing injuries and illnesses will save companies money since there are no direct or indirect costs from chemical exposure. When an employee is injured, they will likely be out of work, and your company will need to hire another person or train a replacement worker. It takes time for a new worker to learn the old worker’s tasks which will reduce productivity. Another indirect cost of a chemical exposure injury includes the time and effort required to complete an incident investigation and implement corrective actions. Direct costs would consist of the medical bills from the employee’s exposure.
Minimized risk of property damage
If your workplace focuses on chemical storage safety best practices, there will be a negligible risk of property damage. However, storing incompatible chemicals together can cause fires or explosions, resulting in millions or billions of dollars in damage to property. If your organization’s building burns down, you won’t be able to make the product and will lose a significant amount of money from a lack of manufacturing.
Increased employee morale, knowledge, and communication
When you have a robust chemical safety program, there is increased employee morale. Employees are informed and educated on the types of chemicals they are working with and know how to protect themselves from harm. When your employees are knowledgeable about the chemicals they are using and the controls established to prevent injury or illness, they feel safe at work.
In addition to feeling protected, employees who are well-informed about the chemicals they work with will also be aware of the emergency procedures if something occurs. For example, suppose a chemical alarm were to start ringing. In that case, educated employees will know the process to either take action to shut off machinery or exit the building, depending on the situation and type of chemical alarm. Once outside, they will know exactly where to go to wait for further instructions.
The 4 Main Routes of Chemical Exposure
Chemicals must enter the body to cause injury or illness to workers. Employees can be exposed to chemicals in four primary routes: inhalation, skin or eye contact, ingestion, or injection.
Inhalation or breathing is the primary way that employees can be exposed. Inhalation occurs when workers breathe in chemical gases, vapors, mists, fumes, or dust. Breathing in chemicals can arise if there is no ventilation or fume hoods are available for employee use.
Skin or eye contact
Employees can get chemicals in their eyes or skin through spills, splashing, chemical reactions, or regular use. As a result, exposure can occur, especially if personal protective equipment (PPE) such as safety glasses, goggles, face shields, compatible gloves, or aprons are not appropriately utilized. In addition, contact can cause damage, such as corrosion to the eyes or skin, or chemicals can be absorbed through the skin and seep into the bloodstream.
Employees can accidentally ingest chemicals that have settled on their hands and fingers or spilled onto food, drinks, cigarettes, or facial hair, such as beards or mustaches. In addition, ingestion can occur if employees do not wear proper PPE when handling chemicals and do not wash their hands after working with them.
Though it is more unlikely than the other routes of exposure, employees can be injected with chemicals. For example, this could occur if an employee accidentally stabs themselves with a syringe containing a chemical. However, this is more likely in laboratory environments where needles are utilized.
Once chemicals have entered the body, they can move into the bloodstream and reach internal organs such as the central nervous system, liver, kidneys, or lungs. Some chemicals will even “target” specific organs to damage.
Health and Physical Hazards
Chemical hazards and toxic substances present a broad array of health and physical hazards that employers need to be cognizant of.
For health hazards, chemicals can be carcinogens (capable of causing cancer), mutagens (causes genetic mutation), respiratory sensitizers, respiratory tract irritants, and can cause reproductive toxicity, target organ toxicity, and aspiration toxicity. In addition, chemicals can be skin sensitizers and cause skin and eye damage, irritation, corrosion, or burns.
For physical hazards, chemicals can be flammable, corrosive, pyrophoric (capable of igniting spontaneously when exposed to air), self-heating, self-reactive, or explosive. These characteristics can cause chemical leaks, fires, or explosions that injure or kill workers or cause severe property or environmental damage.
Acute and chronic effects
The effect of a toxic chemical on a worker’s body can be acute or chronic. Acute or short-term effects appear immediately or soon after exposure to the chemical. Acute effects could be minor such as immediate coughing and throat irritation from breathing in chemical vapors, or something more significant, like eye damage from a splashed chemical.
Chronic or long-term effects may take months or years to surface and usually are permanent. Chronic effects are generally caused by regular exposure to a harmful chemical over time. An example of a chronic effect would be the latency period of asbestos exposure. It takes 10-40 years of asbestos exposure to cause health issues such as lung cancer, asbestosis, or mesothelioma.
Where to find hazards of chemicals
Safety Data Sheets (SDS) and labels should be referenced to understand the hazards that chemicals pose to workers. Employees should be aware of the types of chemicals they are exposed to, and employers should ensure that they have adequate controls implemented to prevent employees from being exposed to the health and physical hazards of chemicals.
What are the Best Practices to Control Chemical Hazards?
There are a significant number of safety precautions when working with chemicals that companies can implement to improve chemical safety in the workplace.
First, employers must evaluate the hazards of the chemicals they produce, import, use, store, or handle. Assessing the risks associated with chemical hazards allows the employer to understand the controls needed to prevent injury, illness, environmental contamination, or property damage.
Follow the Hierarchy of Controls
Companies should always follow the Hierarchy of Controls when managing workplace hazards associated with chemicals. The most effective control is eliminating the chemical hazard. Elimination is usually not possible since chemicals are used in many manufacturing processes. Elimination is the most effective because it removes exposure before it can occur.
The subsequent most effective control is substitution. After a company analyzes which specific chemicals they use, they should attempt to find a safer alternative. For example, if a company uses a methylene chloride-based paint stripper, they should switch it for a safer option, such as paint strippers that are benzyl alcohol-based instead. Using the safer alternative will reduce the health risks associated with a more dangerous chemical.
If a safer chemical alternative cannot be found, engineering controls should be next to reduce chemical hazards. Engineering controls require a physical change in the workplace, decreasing the potential for exposure. Some examples of engineering controls include isolating or enclosing the process, using wet methods to reduce the generation of hazardous dust, using general dilution ventilation, or using local exhaust ventilation like a fume hood or a flexible exhaust hose.
In conjunction with engineering controls, administrative and work practice controls should be used. Examples include rotating employees, adjusting work schedules, implementing safe procedures for using chemicals, and training employees. As a last resort, PPE, such as respirators, should prevent employees from being exposed to chemicals. In addition, other PPE should be used to minimize exposure to chemicals, such as compatible gloves, aprons, safety glasses, goggles, or face shields.
Labeling, SDS, and training
Other chemical safety tips in the workplace include labeling chemicals and ensuring that SDS are available for each chemical used, stored, or managed. Employees must be trained in the chemicals they are using, including the associated hazards, how to use chemicals, and how to protect themselves from exposure. They should know where to find the SDS and whom they can ask questions to if they have concerns about the chemicals they use.
Employers should ensure that they are storing chemicals safely. For example, chemicals should be kept away from direct sunlight, heat sources, and exit routes. In addition, only compatible chemicals should be stored together. If two incompatible chemicals are introduced to each other, it can cause unplanned chemical reactions, which can cause the formation of a gas, fires, or explosions. For example, it is a best practice to segregate acids and bases.
Chemical safety program
Employers should have a written chemical safety program established and communicated to all employees exposed to potential chemical hazards. The chemical safety program should detail the types of chemicals in the workplace, their hazards, controls established, how and when employees will be informed and trained, how chemicals should be labeled, and what to do in the event of a chemical emergency such as if a chemical alarm is triggered.
Employers must understand the importance of chemical safety in the workplace. Companies must recognize the benefits of safely working with chemicals and put controls in place to protect employees from all routes of exposure and the health and physical hazards associated with chemical use.
When companies use the Hierarchy of Controls and other best practices to control chemical hazards, the risk of chemical exposure will be minimized, resulting in fewer injuries and illnesses, increased productivity and morale, improved communication and emergency response, and will ultimately save the company money.