Overview of chemical hazards in the workplace
We all use chemicals in our daily lives (bleach, weed killer, drain cleaner) to perform mundane tasks that we may not think much about but still hold some risk. Even though using chemicals seems normal to us, the fact remains that some common chemicals could cause severe effects if an incident occurred.
Now, consider how many more chemicals are used in the manufacturing industry every day. How many of these chemicals could be potentially harmful to our health? Also, where can we find out which chemicals are harmful to us, why, to what extent, and what steps can we take to protect ourselves? Our first step is to define what a chemical hazard is and understand the types of risks chemicals pose to us.
What is a chemical hazard?
National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) defines chemical hazards as any substance that can pose a risk to human health and safety. These risks can be due to chemical properties, which can create hazardous situations. Some chemical exposure can be highly toxic or carcinogenic to humans, causing short- and long-term health effects.
Other chemicals could be highly reactive, oxidize quickly, or explode under certain conditions, creating physical hazards. Many hazards are situation-specific, such as effects from skin exposure to a chemical that is an irritant or from breathing in a chemical volatilized at high temperatures.
The most common ways of chemical exposure are inhalation, skin contact, and ingestion. Determining the type of exposure and under what conditions you will be exposed to the chemical is crucial.
This information will help in understanding what precautions need to be taken and why. Some chemical substances may not require any additional precautions for their use; other chemicals may require intensive training and other protections to decrease risk. Some hazardous chemicals have rules restricting their use to help control workplace exposure.
Common hazardous chemicals in the workplace
There are thousands of potentially hazardous chemicals in the industrial workplace that workers may be exposed to, but not all are regulated. However, several substances are commonly found that pose significant risk.
These chemicals have well-documented health effects, and federal agencies regulate their exposure times and concentrations. Some of these more common chemicals include:
- Chromium (VI)
- Vinyl chloride
- Methylene chloride
Regulations on chemicals containing these substances, and on general chemical use, can be found in OSHA’s reference to 29 CFR 1910 Subpart Z. OSHA has established permissible exposure limits (PELs) for many hazardous chemicals, but not all. Other agencies have established limits as well.
Regulations on chemical exposure limits
Most of OSHA’s PELs are 8-hour time-weighted averages for airborne chemical concentrations, meaning that the air’s chemical level is measured over an 8-hour period to ensure that the total dose of chemical exposure does not exceed the set limit at any point.
OSHA has only set about 500 PELs but has added other limits to its Subpart Z tables to provide additional information and support. These limits include California Division of Occupational Safety and Health’s (Cal/OSHA) PELs, NIOSH’s Recommended Exposure Limits (REL), and American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienist’s (ACGIH) Threshold Limit Values (TLV) and Biological Exposure Indices (BEI). Employers are required to check levels of workplace exposure.
How can I find information about chemicals I may be exposed to at work?
Finding detailed technical information about chemical hazards is not as difficult as you might think. Chemical manufacturers must create safety data sheets (SDSs) for all of the chemicals they produce.
Employers who use chemicals must ensure that SDSs are readily accessible to employees, and employees must be trained on how to handle the chemicals they may be exposed to. If you are searching for information on a chemical at home, many large chemical distributors have SDS databases that can be used to search for the chemical.
Companies most often use software to manage their chemical compliance management processes which likely include data on chemicals used at work.
However, suppose the chemical distributor or manufacturer is a smaller company. In that case, there might not be such a database – meaning that as a last resort, you might have to contact the manufacturer directly.
Will my employer train me on the chemicals used?
Your employer is required to provide training on the chemical hazards, and personal protective equipment (PPE) needed to reduce the health and safety risk of using the specific chemical.
If you believe that proper precautions are not utilized for the chemicals you are using, ask the safety professional in your workplace for clarification or support. If you work in a laboratory that uses chemicals, an excellent place to start would be your workplace’s Chemical Hygiene Plan (CHP).
How can using PPE help protect me?
Different types of PPE protect from different hazards. Respirators can help protect your lungs from airborne chemicals (be sure you are using the appropriate cartridges or filters). In contrast, gloves and safety glasses can help protect skin and eyes from chemical splashes.
It is essential to understand the type and the limits of the PPE to reduce your exposure to the chemical’s hazards. Remember that using PPE lowers the risk of using a hazardous chemical if you use the PPE properly. It does not eliminate risk and is the least effective measure to protect against hazards according to the Hierarchy of Controls.
What should I do if I was exposed?
Exposure to chemical hazards can still occur even when using appropriate safety measures, such as local exhaust ventilation or properly using PPE. In this instance, it is critical to know what chemicals were being used, the route of exposure, and where to find the chemical SDSs. Section 4 of a chemical’s SDS is First-aid Measures Information found in this section includes symptoms/effects and required treatment.
Other resources in these types of situations are searchable Medical and Emergency Management Procedures and toxicology profiles. For detailed information from multiple government agencies explaining the listed chemicals’ potential hazards and the actions to be taken in emergencies.