3 types of chemical health hazards found in the workplace

Feb 26, 2020 Posted by Walter Ingles

The term “chemical hazard” refers to the risks that surround using a chemical. In the workplace there are two types of chemical hazards: health hazards and physicochemical hazards. This blog looks at 3 different types of chemical health hazards, and presents a real-life example for each. We want to emphasise how critical it is to minimise the risks associated with chemical hazards in your workplace or to eliminate them completely.

Chemical Health Hazards

A chemical health hazard occurs when workers or other personnel are exposed to a hazardous substance. Hazardous chemicals can be inhaled, absorbed through the skin, swallowed, and ingested. Chemical health hazards can affect a person immediately (nausea, vomiting, acid burns, asphyxiation — also known as acute hazards) or the affects might take time to develop (dermatitis, asthma, liver damage, cancer — these are known as chronic hazards).

Let’s now look at three different types of health hazards, caused by exposure to hazardous chemicals:-

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.

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.

But labeling is not enough. You must train your staff how to use, dispense and store hazardous chemicals correctly. Which means never placing or storing chemicals in (or with) food containers (or utensils), and always use a portable container (purposefully designed) that is correctly labeled.

For more detailed information, refer to: 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 look 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 terrible accident resulted from a worker not using their Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) correctly. It is unknown whether the worker had received on-the-job training for work procedures and using PPE. But it does draw attention to the reason that PPE is always considered a last resort when managing a chemical risk.

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.

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
  • Are counselled, disciplined and re-trained if PPE is misused or ignored
  • Know how to put on PPE, take it off, clean, and maintain it safely
  • Undergo regular training in the from of safety workshops, toolbox talks, and emergency drills
  • Know what to do in an emergency situation — like equipment failure or chemical reaction
  • Don’t use damaged or heavily worn PPE

You must maintain PPE with regular servicing and replacement, training staff to alert managers and supervisors to damaged, worn or out-of-date equipment.

For more information, take a look at the blog: How to manage chemical hazards in the workplace

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.

For carcinogenic chemicals and other hazardous substances that emit chronic health hazards, there is no safe level of exposure. It is imperative that chemicals are correctly identified and hazard controls implemented to eliminate 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.

And it’s not enough to only consider the chemicals you actually use and store onsite. You must also consider what work practices might produce chronic health hazards too. For examples carcinogens can be generated by plant and machinery emitting exhaust fumes or wood dust.

Refer to: Guide to Managing Risks of Exposure to Carcinogens in the Workplace (Safe Work Australia)

Managing Chemical Health Hazards at Your Workplace

In this blog we’ve only described three types of chemical health hazards, there are many, many more. So if you’re serious about managing chemical health hazards at your workplace and need a quality guide to get you started, we encourage you to download our free eBook How to manage the risk of Hazardous Chemicals in the workplace.

The eBook contains a step-by-step guide to introducing chemical risk management and control measures at your workplace, and includes workable templates to get you started quickly. Download and read it today by clicking on the image below:

How to manage the risk of hazardous chemicals in the workplace

Walter Ingles

Walter Ingles Compliance Specialist

Walter is STOREMASTA’s Dangerous Goods Storage Specialist. He helps organisations reduce risk and improve efficiencies in the storage and management of dangerous goods and hazardous chemicals.

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