Using poisons and solvents in the workplace
Jun 22, 2018

Using poisons and solvents in the workplace

Walter Ingles Walter Ingles

Poisons are used at workplaces everywhere to aid in processes like printing and manufacturing, cleaning, degreasing, woodworking, painting and mining. This blog post discusses the issues surrounding the use of poisons at work and focuses in particular on solvents (which are really just another poison). But we are giving solvents special emphasis because they are very commonly used, and responsible for numerous workplace injuries and deaths. We don’t want that to happen at your workplace.

What is a poison?

A poison is any substance capable of causing harm to a living creature (especially us humans) from being inhaled, absorbed through the skin or ingested. Poisons can be natural or synthetic (manufactured) but they are all toxic.

When humans are poisoned there are a number of factors influence the severity. These include …

  • Entry - how did the poison enter the body?
  • Dose - how long were they exposed, and how much poison entered the body?
  • Toxicity - how toxic is the poison?
  • Removal - how quickly did the patient receive treatment and antidote?
  • Biological variation - were there any factors like body metabolism or chemical mutations that changed the effect of the poison?

What type of poisons are the most dangerous?

Even in the Australian Poisons Standard 2018, poisons are not scheduled or measured according to their toxicity or poisoning strength.  Although toxicity is considered, for workplace purposes the most dangerous poisons are those that potentially cause the most harm. Or have the highest risk.

The risk associated with using any chemical is a combination of its toxicity strength, how much of it is being used, and the way it is stored and handled. So even though the toxicity of a poison can never be changed, the way we use a poison at work can certainly reduce the likelihood of someone being harmed.

Using poisons in the workplace

The most critical part of using poisons at work is to make sure you completely understand the chemical: it’s toxicity, hazard class, and handling recommendations. When you know exactly what you are dealing with, you can …

  • buy the protective equipment and safety clothes you need
  • design the physical areas of the workplace to safely accommodate the chemical
  • develop safe operating procedures and work methods
  • store the chemical safely, away from anything that might cause a reaction
  • label the chemical with correct Dangerous Goods signage
  • have necessary emergency showers, eye wash stations and first aid equipment on hand

Once you understand the substance you can engineer your workplace layout, operating procedures and work methods to incorporate the safest use of the poison.

We suggest reading through some of our most popular posts 4 Tips for Chemical Safety in the workplace and Handling Chemicals in the Workplace which provide a lot more detail about using PPE, training your staff to use chemicals, creating a register of hazardous substances, and how to store them safely.

Using solvents in the workplace

Solvents are a type of poison that are used to dilute or dissolve other substances and materials; many solvents used at work are a mix of different chemicals. So apart from the toxicity of the actual poison itself, solvents have an increased element of risk because they require a lot of mixing and handling before they can be used.

Solvents are usually highly flammable and their vapours toxic. There have been many preventable incidences of workers (overcome by solvent fumes) falling from heights or into tanks of chemicals. Many painters have died from exposure to their paints: falling from the ladder or after prolonged exposure to the toxic fumes.

Solvents can also irritate the eyes and lungs, causing dizziness, headaches, and nausea. Exposure to solvent fumes can impair the co-ordination and natural reflexes of your workers, and exposure to high concentrations (like the painters mentioned earlier) will quickly cause unconsciousness and death.

REMEMBER: Workers with long term exposure to solvents can also develop dermatitis and other skin disorders.

Solvents should be managed carefully using the Safety Data Sheet (SDS) as a starting point. You must handle and store solvents strictly according to the SDS, using the correct PPE. Here are some general guidelines ….

  • make sure the areas where you use solvents are well ventilated. Maximise the use of natural ventilation (if it’s appropriate to your work operations open windows and doors) or install exhaust fans to remove vapours.
  • don’t use solvents in confined spaces without taking precautions like testing the air or installing suitable ventilation.
  • minimise the use of solvents in work procedures, like using a paint scraper instead of paint stripper or using water-based paints.
  • provide respiratory protective equipment (RPE) for employees, and where appropriate aprons, goggles and gloves. Train each staff member to use their RPE properly, and make sure it fits.

REMEMBER: There are alternatives. Where possible try to use solvent-free materials or substances with a reduced solvent content.

Safely storing poisons and solvents

Like all Dangerous Goods, poisons and solvents must be stored safely according to their hazard class. The SDS will detail specific storage requirements but as a general rule keep poisons secured in a chemical storage cabinet away from heat, sunlight and ignition sources.

As part of the risk assessment you conduct on each poison in your workplace, consider a safety cabinet specially designed for toxic substances. It should have self-closing and self-latching doors, dual-skinned construction, a spill containment sump, and vent ports for mechanical ventilation. Also consider having something custom made if the way you are using and storing poisons is unique or different to other workplaces.

REMEMBER: safety cabinets for poisons must be manufactured to Australian Standard AS NZS 4452 - The Storage and Handling of Toxic Substances.

Next Steps

Now you know more about using poisons in the workplace (especially the hazards associated with solvents) are you ready for the next step? Ready to make sure your worksite is a safe place to work and 100% compliant with Australian WHS legislation?

We recommend you download and read our free eBook How to manage the risk of Hazardous Chemicals in the workplace. We’ll walk you through the steps in assessing the risk associated with every chemical you use at your workplace. And then what to do to fulfil your WHS obligations.  Are you ready for the next step? Download and read How to manage the risk of Hazardous Chemicals in the workplace by clicking on the image below:

How to manage the risk of hazardous chemicals in the workplace

Walter is STOREMASTA’s Dangerous Goods Adviser. He loves helping business reduce the risk that Dangerous Goods pose upon their employees, property and the environment through safe and compliant dangerous goods storage solutions.

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