Safety precautions when working with chemicals
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Working with chemicals: safety considerations
There are workers across industries that regularly work with chemicals at their job. Chemicals can pose both health and physical hazards that employers are responsible for identifying and mitigating to ensure employee safety.
Exposure to chemicals can lead to short and long-term health effects. For a chemical to harm an employee’s health, it must come into contact or enter the body while having some sort of biological effect. The four major routes that a chemical enters the body are inhalation, skin or eye contact, swallowing, and injection.
Exposure can happen at any point during the handling, storage, and transport of hazardous chemicals. Training employees to understand these hazards and how to respond to emergencies are vitally important. Additionally, employers must adhere to regulations to ensure the workplace is safe to work in.
In this article, we will discuss applicable regulations, provide a list of rules for employees to handle chemicals safely, and point you towards a few free resources to strengthen your chemical safety program.
Know the regulations
One of the best-known regulations regarding the employer’s responsibility when hazardous chemicals are in the workplace is OSHA’s Hazard Communication Standard (HCS). The HCS requires employers to develop and disseminate chemical safety information that is accessible and understandable by workers.
This means that employers must keep a written Hazard Communication (Hazcom) plan and train employees on chemical labels, safety data sheets (SDSs), and how to handle chemicals appropriately. Hazcom training for employees is required to be conducted at worksites with hazardous chemicals.
Responsibility does not end with training employees. Employers are also responsible for identifying and evaluating respiratory hazards in the workplace. There are multiple types of Occupational Exposure Limits (OELs) that have been established by various organizations. You can find many of these listed on OSHA’s Safety and Health webpage related to chemical hazards and toxic substances. OSHA maintains enforceable permissible exposure limits (PELs) which are limits based on an 8-hour time-weighted average (TWA).
The TWA is also referred to as an action level where certain activities, such as exposure monitoring and medical surveillance, are required. The allowable airborne concentrations are under the action level and never reach the ceiling limit (the exposure limit a worker’s exposure must never exceed).
The PELs regulations span across the general, maritime, and construction industries. Business owners may need to complete testing to assess the number of airborne concentrations of chemicals that employees are exposed to during their workday. The analysis will show if the first line of defense, engineering, and work practice controls, are or are not working and if respiratory protection will be required.
Rules for handling chemicals safely
Here we have compiled a list of rules for employees to handle chemicals safely. The rules are not prioritized in any particular order and may not be exhaustive. It would be a good idea to get employees involved by presenting these rules during a safety briefing and have them add additional rules to the list. By involving employees in the rulemaking process, will create a sense of ownership and they will be more likely to follow them.
- Maintain awareness, be cautious, and plan ahead. Perform a mental safety assessment to consider what could go wrong during the execution of your work task and then pay close attention to the task at hand.
- Follow your company’s established work procedures and perform job duties in accordance with your training.
- Read labels and the safety data sheet (SDS) to understand hazards and precautions before you start working.
- Always wear the required personal protective equipment (PPE). As a rule of thumb, inspect PPE carefully before use and replace it if too worn or damaged.
- Ensure all containers are labelled properly and appropriate for the material. Immediately report any damaged containers or illegible labels to your supervisor. Do not use the material if not contained or labeled properly.
- Do not use chemicals for anything other than their intended purpose.
- Never eat or drink while handling chemicals. Do not use cosmetics or handle contact lenses while handling materials. Consider that your hands may be contaminated after handling materials and always clean thoroughly with soap and water.
- Ensure materials are stored properly and know which materials cannot be stored together. Separate incompatible materials and store in ventilated, dry, and cool areas.
- Cleanup your work space and surfaces at least once a shift to minimize contamination risks.
- Understand what to do during an emergency. This means knowing evacuation procedures, reporting procedures, what to do in the case of a fire or spill and during a medical emergency where a co-worker or yourself may have become injured or exposed to chemicals.
- If you aren’t sure about the appropriate way to handle a certain chemical, don’t be afraid to ask your supervisor. It is better to ask to receive the correct guidance than to assume wrong information when working with chemicals.
The International Chemical Safety Cards (ICSC) is offered to a targeted audience of workers and safety and health professionals. The material is provided for free as a part of a joint effort between the World Health Organization (WHO) and the International Labour Organization (ILO).
A couple of other great resources can be found from the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and are freely available: the NIOSH Pocket Guide to Chemical Hazards and the Current Intelligence Bulletins which provide up to date information regarding a variety of safety topics and are released periodically.
The NIOSH Pocket Guide to Chemical Hazards is a convenient and informative guide that provides information regarding hundreds of chemicals. In the guide, you can find the exposure limits and chemical information such as exposure routes, PPE, and symptoms of exposure. Available formats are print, online (look for by CAS Numbers orby chemical name), PDF, and accessible via a mobile web app.
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