A chemical hazard refers to the risks that surround using a chemical. In the workplace, we find two types of chemical hazards: health hazards and physicochemical hazards. The term chemical health hazard refers to the properties of a chemical which can result in acute or chronic health issues. Physicochemical hazards pose a risk to workers through mishandling or use, but they don’t occur through the biological interaction of the chemical with the person. Many chemicals commonly found in the workplace can be regarded as being a chemical health hazard and physicochemical hazard. In this blog, we explore 3 types of chemical health hazards found in the workplace, so you can minimise the risks associated with chemical hazards or eliminate them completely.
What Is A Chemical Health Hazard?
When personnel are exposed to a hazardous substance, it is deemed a chemical health hazard. Hazardous chemicals can cause health issues by being absorbed through the skin, inhaled, swallowed or ingested.
Chemical hazards may include a vast range of commonly found substances including:
- Cleaning chemicals
- Gas cylinders
- Petroleum products
How Can A Chemical Hazard Affect Your Health?
Chemical health hazards are classed as either acute or chronic hazards.
Acute hazards may affect a person immediately, within hours or days. They result in health problems including:
- Acid burns
Chronic hazards are issues that may take some time to develop symptoms. A chronic hazard can result in a serious health issues such as:
- Liver damage
Chemical Health Hazards In The Workplace
Now that we have a general understanding of what a chemical health hazard is, let’s look at 3 examples of chemical health hazards in the workplace. These real-life examples of chemical health hazards illustrate the very real dangers that chemicals pose to workers, other personnel and potentially the general public.
1. Health Hazard: Ingestion Of Poisons
A worker in the laundry of a resort died after drinking fluorosilicic acid solution that was stored in a Nestlé 16oz water bottle. The bottle had no additional labeling and had been left out in a common area by another worker.
One of the biggest risks that surround hazardous chemicals in a workplace is making sure everyone on site knows exactly what chemicals they are using and where they are. The tragic example above might have been avoided had the workers used a proper storage container that was correctly labeled.
How To Correctly Label Chemicals
To comply with WHS safety legislation in Australia, if a hazardous chemical has been decanted or transferred from the container in which it was packed and it will not be used immediately or it is supplied to someone else, the label must, at a minimum, be written in English and include the following:
- The product identifier, and
- A hazard pictogram or hazard statement consistent with the correct classification of the chemical.
Correctly labelled chemicals
However, labeling chemicals is not enough to minimise risk. You also must train your staff on how to correctly use, dispense and store hazardous chemicals. Chemicals must never be placed or stored in or with food containers and utensils. They must also be stored in a portable container which is purposefully designed and correctly labelled.
REFER: Labeling of Workplace Hazardous Chemicals (Safe Work Code of Practice)
2. Health Hazard: Exposure To Toxic Fumes
A worker was cleaning a semi-trailer tanker. He was standing on top of the vehicle wearing a respirator and hosing down the tanker. He took off his PPE and inhaled hydrogen sulfide causing him to fall. His death was a combination of chemical burns to the lungs and the impact of falling.
This horrific workplace accident was the result of a worker not using their Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) in the correct manner. While it is unknown if the worker received adequate on-the-job training for work procedures and using PPE, this terrible workplace accident draws attention to the fact that PPE is always considered a last resort when managing a chemical risk.
Personal protective equipment (PPE)
Personal protective equipment (PPE) is the least effective at minimising risk because it does not control the hazard at the source and relies on human behaviour and supervision.
These control measures should only be used:
- to supplement higher level control measures (as a back-up)
- as a short-term interim measure until a more effective way of controlling the risk can be used, or
- when there are no other practical control measures available (as a last resort).
PPE will almost always be a part of your risk control measures for reducing the exposure or your workers to toxic fumes and gases. PPE must only be used in conjunction with clear operating procedures and safe work methods. It’s not enough to train staff once.
Using PPE In The Workplace
When PPE is used at your worksite you must ensure that your staff:
- receive a comprehensive induction to using the PPE
- have adequate on-the-job supervision and remedial instruction
- understand how to put on, take off, clean and maintain PPE safely
- don’t use damaged or heavily worn PPE
- are counselled, disciplined and re-trained if PPE is misused or ignored
- undergo regular training in the formof safety workshops, toolbox talks, and emergency drills
- know what to do in an emergency situationsuch as equipment failure or chemical reaction
To effectively manage risk in your business, you must maintain PPE with regular servicing and replacement, when required. Organisations should also implement training for staff so they can alert managers and supervisors if PPE is found to be damaged, worn or out-of-date.
REFER: How to manage work health and safety risks (Safe Work Code of Practice)
3. Health Hazard: Long Term Exposure To Chemicals
The American Cancer Council report that the chemical benzene is known to cause leukemia and other cancers of blood cells. Rates of leukemia, particularly acute myeloid leukemia (AML), have been found to be higher in studies of workers exposed to high levels of benzene, such as those in the chemical, shoemaking, and oil refining industries.
Storing Of Chemicals In The Workplace
There is no safe level of exposure for carcinogenic chemicals and other hazardous substances that emit chronic health hazards. Therefore, it is vital that organisations correctly identify chemicals and implement hazard controls to eliminate potential exposure to workers.
Unlike many toxic health effects of chemicals, a carcinogenic effect may take many years to develop and there may be no early warning of adverse effects. A diagnosis of cancer may not be made until long after exposure ceases and it may not be simple to link the disease to an exposure at work.
In addition to considering the methods in which you use and store chemicals onsite, you must also review any work practices that may produce chronic health hazards. For example, carcinogens can be generated by plant and machinery emitting exhaust fumes or wood dust.
Plant emitting exhaust fumes
REFER: Guide to Managing Risks of Exposure to Carcinogens in the Workplace (Safe Work Australia)
How To Manage Chemical Health Hazards In The Workplace
Chemical health hazards may be found in almost any workplace in any industry, from small businesses to large corporations. In this blog, we have listed just 3 types of health hazards that may happen in the workplace, but there are many more.
Chemical health hazards pose a threat to your people as well as your business, so it’s important to gain a better understanding of how you can manage the risks or eliminate the potential for a health hazard. If you are interested in finding out more about preventing chemical health hazards in the workplace, we encourage you to download our free eBook How to manage the risk of Hazardous Chemicals in the workplace.
The helpful eBook contains a step-by-step guide to introducing chemical risk management and control measures at your workplace. We have also included workable templates to get you started quickly. You may download it for free and read it to today by simply clicking on the image below.