Chemical health hazards: how hazardous chemicals can damage the health of your workers

Dec 2, 2018 Posted by Walter Ingles

‘Hazardous chemicals’ are substances that create a risk to the health and safety of humans, other organisms, and the environment. They require careful management as they have both physical hazards (eg, flammable, corrosive, chemically-reactive) as well as chemical hazards (eg, toxic, carcinogenic).

This blog identifies the common health hazards that could affect your workers and explains: how chemicals enter the body; and how the toxicology of the chemical combines with other factors to create an immediate health affect (poisoning, death) or long-term diseases like dermatitis or cancer.

IMPORTANT: Hazardous chemicals are not just liquids; they may also be solids or gases and when used in the workplace could contaminate workers via fumes, vapours, dusts, smoke and mists.

Exposure to hazardous chemicals

Hazardous chemicals can enter the body of your workers in a three ways:

1. Direct contact with the eyes or skin

One of the most obvious ways hazardous chemicals enter the body is by direct contact to the eyes or skin. Very often the reaction is quick and painful: the skin becomes red, swollen, blistered, or itchy while the eyes can immediately be rendered blind.

2. Inhaling (breathing in) hazardous chemicals

Workers can inhale compressed gases, toxic smoke and mist, or the vapours and fumes from flammable liquids and poisons. Once inhaled the chemicals move into the bloodstream,  penetrating major organs like the lungs, liver, kidneys and enter the reproductive and nervous systems.

3. Ingesting (swallowing) hazardous substances

Many workers have died or suffered terrible injuries from ingesting or swallowing hazardous chemicals. Though it may seem unlikely an adult would knowingly swallow hazardous chemicals, it can happen accidentally. Toxic and corrosive chemicals placed in unsuitable containers like cups or empty soft drink bottles without proper labels have caused many workplace deaths and serious injuries.

Hazardous substances can also be ingested if a worker touches their mouth after handling chemicals and hasn’t washed their hands. In one terrible accident a worker swallowed carbolic acid after a burst pipe drenched him and the chemical and the acid was forced into his open mouth. Spilled chemicals can also settle on food, cigarettes, drinks or beards.

REMEMBER: The Safety Data Sheet (SDS) for all hazardous chemicals show the health effects and first aid measures for all entry points eg, skin contact, eyes, inhalation, and swallowing.

Adverse health effects of hazardous chemicals

When workers are exposed to hazardous chemicals they can suffer immediate health effects (acute) or develop long term (chronic) health conditions. Very often they suffer both.

Acute health effects

An acute health effect is something that happens almost immediately and is usually visibly obvious. Burned skin, vomiting, coughing, itching, rashes, bleeding, dizziness, blindness, unconsciousness, and blistering are all acute conditions.

Chronic health effects

Sometimes when workers are exposed to chemicals the health effects are not immediately obvious:  it may take weeks, months or years to develop an illness or disease. Asthma, dermatitis, liver damage and cancer are all diseases or conditions that can develop when workers are exposed to certain chemicals on a long term basis.

IMPORTANT: Workers can develop both acute and chronic health conditions eg, a worker regularly using corrosive detergents and cleaners may have inflamed skin and a rash (acute) but after years of direct skin contact develop skin cancer (chronic).

Determining the severity of a chemical hazard

The severity of a chemical hazard is not immediately obvious because it depends on more than the toxicity of the chemical. Accidents, injuries and illnesses from exposure to hazardous chemicals will depend on a combination of factors including:

  • The toxicity of the hazardous chemical eg, cyanide vs methylated spirits.

  • Other reactive chemicals and conditions present eg, aerosol spray paint + heat.

  • How the chemical enters the body eg, spilling a bit of toluene solvent on your skin vs inhaling the vapours.

  • The dose (or amount of chemical) eg, falling into a vat of acid vs having acid splashed onto your hand.

  • The length of exposure time eg, using spray paints for 1 hour per week vs spray painting 5 hours per day for 3 years.

  • Individual health factors eg, metabolism, body size, age, smoker/non-smoker.

IMPORTANT: Safework Australia remind us that relatively harmless chemicals are often overlooked in risk assessments. Don’t forget that continuous exposure to low toxicity chemicals can still be hazardous over a long period time.

Steps to hazardous chemical safety

Because chemical health hazards are so complex they require a full risk management approach in order to provide a safe working environment for workers. This will include a combination of:

1. Risk Identification and Assessment

Using a risk management methodology to identify, assess, and control the risks and then sustain compliance by undertaking regular reviews.

2. Chemical Storage and Decanting

Implementing known control measures and guidelines from Australian Safety Standards such as using flammable liquid cabinets; gas bottle cages; lubrication dispensers, spill bunds, and decanting stations.

3. PPE and Emergency Equipment

Providing staff with personal protective equipment (PPE), then installing emergency showers and eyewash stations.

4. Working with Independent Consultants

Obtaining the advice of professional safety consultants with field experience in your industry who can assess onsite chemical exposure levels and conduct full workplace audits for other chemical safety risks.

Next Steps

To learn more about chemical safety management and applying a risk management methodology to the chemical hazards at your workplace, download our free eBook How to manage the risk of Hazardous Chemicals in the workplace. Download it 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 Adviser. He loves helping businesses 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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