Workplace Safety – The Control of Hazardous Chemical Substances
For centuries, workers have been forced to operate in unsafe and unhealthy conditions while their employers largely dismissed the high incidence of illness and injury as unrelated to their jobs. More recently, government legislation regarding the labelling of everyday products has raised public awareness of the many risks posed to consumers by hazardous chemical substances. We are warned to handle items like drain cleaner with care due to their corrosive properties and to wash thoroughly in the event of accidental skin contact. However, in the workplace, such dangers are frequently less obvious. Toxic vapours or particles are often released into the atmosphere as a hidden byproduct of some manufacturing process.
A single exposure usually proves harmless, and any cumulative harmful effects will only become apparent after a prolonged period. Some, like chlorine, sulphur, and ammonia are detectable by their distinctive colour or smell, while others are colourless and odourless. Either way, protecting employees from hazardous chemical substances in the workplace is crucial and, in most developed countries, also a legal obligation.
As our knowledge of human physiology and the factors that threaten it has grown, the need for greater caution in factories and laboratories has become more apparent. It took 50 years from the first recorded case of asbestosis in the United States before Iceland became the first country to ban its use in any form. Before the connection was made, the condition was invariably diagnosed as tuberculosis and unrelated to the patient’s job. Today, occupational hygiene companies specialise in detecting hazardous chemical substances, assessing the potential risk they might present to exposed personnel and introducing ways to eliminate them, moderate their levels, or provide staff with adequate protection.
The Most Common Hazardous Chemical Substances
Among the most common workplace hazards in this category are strongly acidic or alkaline liquids, heavy metals (such as mercury, cadmium, and lead), pesticides, paints, adhesives, and various organic solvents. Their effects on humans vary according to the nature of the substance and the level of exposure. They include respiratory, renal, and hepatic diseases, nervous system disorders, malignancies, and birth defects. Other consequences of exposure to hazardous chemical substances, such as headaches, nausea, chemical burns, and contact dermatitis are also commonplace.
The Need for Training
Employees whose duties require direct handling of such materials must undergo training in the necessary precautions. These might include wearing protective clothing, such as gloves, goggles, or masks. However, where the source is atmospheric, an efficient ventilation system can help reduce the risk substantially. In parallel, every effort should be made to reduce the production of the offending chemicals. Secondary measures such as prominently displayed warning signs in known danger areas are equally important in any campaign to ensure workers remain safe from the effects of hazardous chemical substances.
In some cases, the solution might be surprisingly simple. It may be possible to utilise a less toxic alternative for some tasks. For example, a detergent could prove safer and just as effective as a chlorine-based product for cleaning purposes. However, the most effective way to tackle this problem is to arrange for an occupational hygiene company to conduct a workplace survey.
A trained consultant from IOH Solutions will locate any hazardous chemical substances present, determine their risk level, and institute procedures to mitigate their effects. We invite you to check out our accredited industrial hygiene services and to contact us for more information.