Managing Hazardous Chemical Substances in the Workplace

The list of hazardous chemical substances is a long one. It even includes the oxygen we breathe, which is potentially explosive and, when breathed in its pure form, can cause a fatal toxic reaction in the human central nervous system. In the home, substances like liquid bleach, oven cleaner, and pool acid can also be harmful when swallowed or cause severe burns when in contact with the skin. However, in the factories where these and similar substances are produced, the threat to workers can be far greater unless appropriate precautions and countermeasures are in place.

Hazardous Chemical Substances

Among the first hazardous chemical substances to be taken seriously were coal dust and asbestos fibres. When inhaled over a prolonged period, they cause the severe respiratory diseases known as pneumoconiosis and asbestosis, respectively. Victims of these conditions were initially ignored, but legislation eventually saw them receive free treatment in specialist centres and well-deserved industrial compensation. Beryllium is a metallic substance now used to manufacture gear wheels, but (like arsenic, cadmium, and thallium) it was once present in the phosphor coatings of fluorescent lamps. Now banned for this purpose, all have been responsible for numerous workplace deaths.

Despite such bannings, other hazardous chemical substances remain a significant threat to factory employees’ health in most industrialised nations, and South Africa is no exception. To address this problem and similar threats posed by physical factors and biological agents, in 1993, the government published the Occupational Health and Safety Act. The new legislation meant that, for the first time, the working conditions of those in all occupations would come under scrutiny, not only those employed in strategically important core industries such as mining.

The act defined the responsibilities of both employers and employees pertaining to health and safety at work. However, identifying hazardous chemical substances and potential biological threats requires special knowledge and skills that few workers or employers are likely to possess. To overcome this shortfall, the government also provided access to training courses in the field now known as occupational hygiene.

Once trained and accredited, the participants possess the necessary knowledge and skills to conduct a survey of a typical working environment. More specifically, their training enables them to detect and identify any potential hazards present and evaluate the level of risk these may pose to employees who may undergo exposure.

Some of the hazardous chemical substances an industrial hygiene assessor should be looking for are acids, caustic substances such as sodium hydroxide, pesticides, and heavy metals, including mercury and lead. Even some of the products of a factory, such as paints, pesticides, toner for photocopiers, and adhesives, can also pose a threat if not manufactured, handled, and stored with due care.

Once a chemical with the potential to harm employees has been identified, the next step is to determine whether it is present in sufficient concentration to constitute a genuine health risk. Where this is the case, measures to reduce its concentration to acceptable levels or to provide vulnerable personnel with suitable protection will be essential.

Detecting and evaluating hazardous chemical substances requires more than the relevant skill set. Specialised sampling and monitoring equipment, as well as a lab with trained technical staff are also essential. IOH Solutions ticks all of these boxes and more.