Every day, workers everywhere are exposed to hazardous chemicals and toxins. There are literally hundreds of thousands of chemical types in use worldwide (with hundreds more being added every year), each with their own specific set of potential dangers.
The statistics for workplace chemical injury are unclear, and this is due in part to the documenting of immediate or acute injuries vs. those that occur with prolonged minor exposure over time. Chemical use, in one form or another, is found in a wide variety of industries including automotive, pharmaceutical, oil & gas, construction, cleaning & maintenance, manufacturing, industrial and even for health and beauty workers. The key is to know what you’re dealing with and to recognize the potential risks.
The use of hazardous materials is tightly regulated and it is the responsibility of all employers to understand, comply with, and communicate all standards to workers as they relate to their use. There are specific exposure limits that must be observed, in addition to the measures that must be in-place to protect anyone that comes in contact with these toxins. Unfortunately, many of these exposure standards can be out-of-date and workers can still get sick. Often it is a balance between what the LEGAL limits are vs. SAFE levels for human exposure.
For more information on overall government standards, you can visit:
Workplace Hazardous Material Information System (WHMIS)
Canadian Centre for Occupational Health & Safety
Planning & Procedures
Your own company policies and procedures are what ultimately keep employees safe. Be sure to establish an internal Health & Safety committee that looks at all aspects of chemical handling, storage, use and disposal, labeling and training. Also consult with provincial and local government agencies, emergency response services and chemical manufacturers to ensure that all requirements are being met, and that these safety standards are being practiced and enforced on an ongoing basis. Note that any company procedures must be presented in a formal, written format.
Here are some items to consider when establishing a plan for your company:
Establish a list of what chemicals are necessary for your operation and how they are currently being used, labeled and stored. Where necessary, conduct air or other testing to determine if exposures exceed recommended limits.
For any plan to be effective, you must understand the exact nature of the substances you’re using and what the possible risks and side effects may be. This is where manufacturer and MSDS (Material Safety Data Sheet) information is critical.
Communication & Training
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has standards in-place that relate to hazard communication and these must be strictly followed. They include details on MSDS, information availability, chemical identity, risk identification, reporting and documentation. These elements would also apply to employee training.
Items that you can put into place to control and limit exposure would include:
- Replacing materials with less hazardous alternatives
- Strategic work scheduling
- Limiting access to high risk areas
- Ensuring adequate ventilation
- Providing shields, fume hoods or containment areas to protect workers
- The use of approved PPE (personal protective equipment)
- Following strict chemical and container disposal procedures
Being prepared for an emergency situation is critical. Always ensure that:
- Adequate first aid/wash stations and supplies are available (specific to the nature of the toxic materials used)
- Evacuation procedures are in place
- Approved firefighting equipment is accessible
- Spill control procedures are established, with appropriate kits/materials easily available
Additional safety practices may include:
- Maintaining strict inventory controls for toxic chemical substances, rotating stock as necessary and documenting thoroughly
- Storing and using the minimum amount of chemical materials necessary for your operation for added control
- Inspecting containers regularly for damage or leaks and returning or replacing any immediately that do not meet standards. All containers must be clearly labeled and be tightly closed when not in use.
- Storage areas should be well ventilated and within the temperature range suitable for the materials being housed. Storage areas should also not be in direct sunlight and be away from processing locations, any hot work (welding etc.), staff areas such as cafeterias, and not in proximity to any other combustible materials.
- Ensure that you maintain adequate warning signage in areas where chemicals are used and stored. These areas should also have fire resistant walls and be free of obstructions.
- Authorized personnel only should have access to chemical storage areas
- All workers must be aware of the typical symptoms of chemical poisoning and what the first aid response should be. Any signs of illness or overexposure must be immediately reported to a supervisor.
- Containers should never be over-filled (to allow for vapour expansion) and be used with proper tools to avoid any spills. It is also not a good practice to return contaminated or unused material to the original container.
- Treat empty containers as hazardous waste unless they can be decontaminated safely
- Practice good overall housekeeping within the facility or job site and clean any minor spills immediately. Within certain environments, a build up of dirt, dust or toxic residues can become an issue over time.
- Avoid the dry sweeping of solid toxic materials, as they will typical release up into the air. Use a pre-wetting technique or use a vacuum equipped with specialty filters instead.
- MSDS information must be well communicated and readily available in the event of an emergency situation. This will help aid first responders to be more effective in both medical and containment scenarios.
- When determining what PPE will be most effective in protecting workers, refer to all MSDS material and consult with chemical manufacturers. More information can be found at: http://www.ccohs.ca/oshanswers/prevention/ppe/
- Even if they have followed all precautions, workers who come in contact with chemical materials (even airborne) should take care to wash thoroughly after each shift