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Chemical hazards in the Workplace

Updated: Jan 18

There is hardly any work place where chemicals are not in active use and hardly any production system that does not have one chemical or the other in circulation; either as an active raw material in the production process or as a product of the production process. Chemicals have been essential and will continue to be essential parts of man’s effort to develop the society and an integral part of technological advancements. While the use of chemicals has tremendous benefits, exposure to chemicals pose a hazard to humans and the environment; sometimes in subtle and difficult to identify forms. Many working persons do not have proper understanding of OSHA’s classification of chemicals and hence do not follow the right safety protocols to protect themselves from chemical hazards. This post aims to achieve the following in readers: A proper understanding of chemical hazards, their modes of entry into the body and protection against chemical hazards in the workplace.

Let’s begin the journey….

What are chemical Hazards?

Chemical hazards are risks arising from exposure to chemicals in the workplace. This could be a result of your direct use of the chemical or the indirect exposure when a co-worker is working with such chemicals. These risks arise from what is classified as hazardous chemicals. These chemicals expose workers to either physical or health hazards.

Types of Chemical Hazards

There are two types of Chemical Hazards in the work place: Physical hazards and health hazards. Physical hazards ‐ a chemical is said to constitute a physical hazard if it has the capacity to cause harm to the worker or the work environment because of its physical properties or nature. Chemicals in this category include the following: · explosives · self‐heating chemicals · flammables (gases, aerosols, liquids, or solids) · self‐reactive; pyrophoric (liquid or solid) chemicals · oxidizers (liquid, solid or gas) · organic peroxides · chemicals that cause metal corrosion · gas under pressure · and chemicals that emit flammable gases when in contact with water.

Chemical Health hazard ‐ A chemical constitutes a health hazard if contact with it leads to any of the following effects on the worker or his colleagues.

· skin corrosion or irritation

· Eye irritation and damage

· Damage to the respiratory system

· germ cell mutagenicity

· carcinogenicity

· reproductive toxicity

Health hazards can have immediate severe effects or slow but long term damage to the body and its organs. An immediate severe effect is considered acute and includes acid burns, vomiting etc. Chronic chemical health hazards include the following: liver damage, cancer, damage to the reproductive system etc. They occur gradually over time.

It is important to note that chemicals also constitute a hazard to the environment. In conducting a job hazard analysis, it is important to understand the effect of chemicals, intended for use or produced during operations, on the environment, plants, the soil, wild and aquatic life.

Forms of Chemicals in the workplace

A common mistake is to think that hazardous chemicals are only those in either liquid or gaseous forms. The definition of chemical is much broader than liquids and gases.

In addition to liquid and gaseous chemicals, Workplace Chemicals can exist in any of the following forms:

· Fumes ‐these are usually of smaller sizes than dusts and usually formed when vaporized metals condense into tiny solids.

· Vapors are gases formed when liquids are heated to a certain temperature. This temperature is dependent on the nature of the liquid and the prevailing temperature.

· Solids such as metal, treated wood, plastic.

· Dusts and fibers – Dusts are finely divided solid particles able to stay suspended in the air and enter the body through inhalation. In contrast to dusts, fibers are elongated in shape.

· Mists are liquid droplets that have been sprayed into the atmosphere.

Factors that determine the effect of chemicals

Understanding how these chemicals affect the worker and environment is key to effective protection against the hazards they pose. The effect of any chemical is determined by the following factors:

1) The form of the chemical: the various forms of work place chemicals have been discussed above. Understanding the form in which the chemical exists helps understand how easily it can spread across the body. Will it stay around the point of contact or spread rapidly to other parts of the body?

2) The dosage and concentration of the chemical : How much chemical did the body take and in what concentration? Chemicals have a fatal dose. While acids might cause little harm in low concentrations, it is important to note that severe burns and fatality can arise from inhaling concentrated acids.

3) The toxicity: Some chemicals are more poisonous than others and so is the level of damage they cause.?

4) The route of entry or point of contact with the body. Chemicals maybe ingested, injected, absorbed or inhaled. The level of damage and the rate at which it happens is affected by the route through which it enters the body. This is because the organ in direct contact with the chemical on entry into the body is determined by the route of entry. An acid, in contact with the skin might cause minor burns but same acid, ingested or injected into the body can lead to immediate fatality.

A proper Chemical Hazard assessment should in addition to identifying chemical exposures in the workplace, define their potential routes of entry. This helps define the best hazard control measures and the Right PPE for the job. Of the four routes of entry of chemicals, the most common in the workplace is inhalation.

How to Prevent Chemical Hazards in the Workplace

The hierarchy of controls is a general approach to controlling and preventing work relating injuries. This hierarchy in order of effectiveness is as follows:

1. Hazard elimination

2. Hazard substitution

3. Engineering control

4. Use of warning signs

5. Administrative controls

6. Use of the Right PPE

To control Chemical Hazards in the workplace, a dedicated team or individual should do the following:

1. Identify the Chemical hazard

2. Assess the Chemical hazard

3. Apply the hierarchy of hazard controls

4. Enforce and sustain a Chemical Hazard prevention policy

Identifying Chemical Hazards in the Workplace

Clearly identify all chemicals in use and produced in your workplace. These could be raw materials or products of your processes.

To achieve proper Chemical Hazards identification in your work place, the rules of Hazard Communication Systems must be complied with. This includes compliance with proper labelling of chemicals, availability of a comprehensive Safety Data Sheet and proper training of employees.

All chemicals in your workplace should be properly labelled in compliances with the United Nations Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labeling of Chemicals (GHS)

Assess the Chemical Hazard

What exposures will workers and the environment have to the chemicals in your workplace, how long will these exposures last, how do you intend to transport and store these chemicals?

Define all of these in a risk assessment of each chemical in your workplace.

Apply the hierarchy of controls

You may eliminate the use of one chemical, substitute a harmful chemical with a less harmful one or use the Right PPE to ensure safety.

It is OSHA's long standing policy that engineering and work practice controls must be the primary means to reduce employee exposure to toxic chemicals, where feasible. Respiratory protection is required to be used if engineering or work practice controls are infeasible or while engineering controls are being implemented.

Enforce and sustain a Chemical Hazard prevention policy.

It is not sufficient to identify and assess the Chemical Hazards your workers are exposed to. It is important to enforce a health and safety policy that ensures protection of the worker and the environment. Such policy should be clearly defined in writing and employees are to sign up to compliance. Continually review and update your policy as new chemicals are introduced into your processes.

Want to learn how to write a safety policy? Check out this post

What can you do to improve safety?

Store chemicals safely

Use the Right PPE whenever there is risk of exposure

Report all hazards and near misses

Study the labels and safety data sheet that comes with every chemical before use

Develop a safety mindset; do not proceed with an unsafe process.

Work safe and keep protecting yourself against the corona virus. Have an amazing and blessed 2021.

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