Hazardous Chemical Substances | Effects on Workplace Safety

Common Hazardous Chemical Substances and Their Potential Effects in the Workplace

Hazardous Chemical Substances

The growing use of hazardous chemical substances seriously threatens workers’ health. This article examines some of these and how they could affect employees. Even in ancient times, there was an awareness of the potential danger of various chemicals to workers exposed to them. However, given the lack of knowledge of countering such threats, employees simply chose to accept the risks to ensure an income. Inevitably, their decision led to vast numbers of work-related illnesses and deaths.

Today, we are more dependent than ever on chemicals for various applications in mining, manufacturing, metallurgy, food processing and many other industries. However, a combination of legislation, ethics, and basic economics has led to the development of effective countermeasures. The following sections identify some of the more commonly encountered hazardous chemical substances and their associated health risks.

  • Lead: This dull grey, dense metal is a common contaminant in mines. It is also used to manufacture lead/acid car batteries, the roofing material known as flashing and the solder used in electronic circuit boards. Long-term exposure to lead can have various ill effects, including brain and kidney damage, anaemia and congenital disabilities.
  • Cadmium: Tiny amounts of this element are found in soil, water, air and some foods. In such quantities, it is harmless, but the metal and its compounds are also widely used in new technologies like solar cells, rechargeable batteries and the manufacture of pigments for colouring plastics and paint. Without suitable precautions, workers exposed to cadmium risk respiratory and bone disease, damage to the gastrointestinal, neurological and reproductive systems and cancer.
  • Mercury: As the only metal liquid at room temperature, mercury was first used in thermometers and barometers. Today it can be found in cosmetics, fluorescent lamps, dental fillings and even vaccines. Mercury is highly toxic. Its milder effects include nausea, diarrhoea, blistering and rashes. However, it is also believed to cause seizures, asthma, cancer and Parkinson’s disease.

So far, the focus has been on inorganic chemicals and toxic metallic elements, in particular. These include zinc and chromium, while non-metallic arsenic is also a common hazard. Next, we review two hazardous chemical substances in the organic category.

  • Benzene: This organic liquid is present in crude oil. It is synthesised in vast quantities in chemical plants for use by companies that manufacture plastics, pesticides and detergents and numerous other chemical products. This widely used hydrocarbon can affect workers’ health in several ways, including a weakened immune system, excessive bleeding, anaemia and bone marrow damage. In addition, benzene is a highly flammable liquid and a serious fire risk.
  • Toluene: This compound resembles benzene and is used in leather tanning, paint thinners, stain removers and glue and is also the second ‘T’ in the highly explosive product known as TNT(trinitrotoluene). Milder effects of exposure to toluene include numbness, muscle fatigue, dermatitis, anxiety, confusion and dizziness, but kidney and liver damage may also occur.

Managing Hazardous Chemical Substances

The Department of Labour has approved IOH Solutions as an inspection authority. Our teams can survey your workplace, identify potential hazards and suggest effective countermeasures. Please don’t hesitate to contact us if you would like to ensure your workers’ health and safety.

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