Chemical Safety in the Workplace
Chemicals are a part of our daily lives. Worldwide, over 400 million tons of chemicals are produced every year. Although the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) mandates that employers must label all chemicals and potential hazards in the workplace, many employers bypass this precaution. The unfortunate truth is that for the majority of chemicals produced each year, little to no information exists on their immediate and long-term health effects. Chemicals are found in nearly every industry, meaning workers at any level are exposed to some level of chemical hazard. The most common chemicals include ammonia solutions, chlorine, sulfur dioxide, propyl nitrate, dihydrogen monoxide and hydrogen phosphide. Several of these chemicals can also be found in daily household products, such as cleaning supplies.
The following includes information on how to safely handle common but potentially dangerous chemicals found in a range of work environments, the hazards of misusing chemicals and what workers can do in the event of exposure.
Handling Chemicals in the Workplace
With a wide range of different toxic chemicals found in the workplace, employers are legally mandated by both federal and state laws to train their employees on how to handle dangerous chemicals. Toxins can be found in solids, liquids, vapors and dusts alike, and they can make their way into the bloodstream through the nose, mouth, skin contact, or eye contact. In order to handle most chemicals, you need the right equipment, particularly Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) such as gloves, rubber aprons, safety glasses or goggles, and nonslip safety solutions.
If employees are working in an office or factory that features industrial chemicals, employers need to provide special spill kits designed for the workplace. These spill kits can include materials that absorb liquids, including spill powders; a brush and scoop; neutralizing agents and products for all onsite chemicals; and special waste containers.
In addition to special spill kits and PPE, employers may also provide dispensing stations that automatically dilute chemicals. Employers can also mandate other safety measures like prohibiting workers from eating in chemically contaminated areas. Employer can simply use less toxic materials whenever possible, like ammonia-free cleaning solutions.
Hazards of Misusing Chemicals
Chemical toxicity can lead to a range of illnesses, from mild skin rashes to fatal forms of cancer. While some airborne chemicals enter the bloodstream through the respiratory system, causing immediate irritation in the upper respiratory tract and lung passages. Other gases and vapors cause long-term damage, often going unnoticed until it is too late. Respirable dust can enter the bloodstream through the nose and end up deposited along air passageways. Some employees, such as construction workers, risk ingesting chemical substances when smoking or eating at their worksite.
Exposure to common work chemicals can lead to short or long-term damage, resulting in serious effects such as damage to internal organs, chronic pain throughout the body and life-threatening illnesses. Consistent exposure to a range of chemicals can also cause allergies, systematic poisoning and ailments like pneumoconiosis.
Exposure to Chemicals
If you are exposed to any type of hazardous chemical, you should seek immediate help. You should also know where first-aid kits, soap, clean water and disposable drying materials are located. Some employers also keep water in disposable containers near first-aid boxes, which can be used for eye irrigation and wash.
Employers, such as companies that work out of large-scale factories, with more than 500 workers at any given time are required to have a first-aid room. These rooms should have the minimum furnishings required in a full-scale first-aid room, including washing facilities and first-aid kits. There should also be clean running water, clean towels and refuse containers.
Additional Resource Guides
For employees and employers interested in further research on hazardous chemicals found in the workplace, the following is a list resources covering safety measures and workers’ rights and comp resources.
- The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA): The U.S. Department of Labor offers a substantial guide on employee safety regulations in the workplace. In addition, the OSHA website provides data and statistics, information on workers’ rights and training programs concerning safety regulations for employers.
- The U.S. National Library of Medicine: Among a range of services, the Division of Specialized Information Services provides information on toxicology and environmental health. Their website includes access to resources produced by the Toxicology and Environmental Health Information Program, including the Haz-Map database, which contains important information on the health effects of exposure to hazardous materials.
- Department of Labor and Workforce Development: Each state offers resources related to the Occupational Safety and Health Act, which seeks to protect workers from dangerous work conditions and environments. The webpage includes state mandated safety regulations, as well as a guide for employees who want to pursue legal action against employers.