Handling corrosive substances in the workplace

Feb 3, 2020 Posted by Walter Ingles

Corrosive substances are seriously dangerous. They attack and destroy body tissue almost immediately and accidents can be incredibly painful and dangerous. But corrosives are regularly used at workplaces everywhere in manufacturing processes, industrial cleaning, refrigeration, as well as mining and oil extraction. Make sure your staff knows exactly what they’re dealing with and how to stay safe.

NOTE; If it’s at all possible, substitute corrosive chemicals with a less hazardous chemical.

This blog post outlines some of the risks and hazards when using corrosive substances at work. We’ll talk about some real workplace incidents involving corrosives in different forms (gases and liquids) as well as some advice on how to handle them safely at work. Remember this is general advice only and you should always check the latest Safety Data Sheets SDSs for the most up-to-date handling, PPE and first aid advice.

Risks when using corrosive substances

Corrosive substances can harm workers in 4 different ways:-

1. Ingestion

Swallowing a corrosive chemical will almost immediately burn the lining of the mouth, throat, oesophagus, and stomach. It’s hard to imagine how someone could swallow a corrosive substance at work, but sadly it does happen.

In a terrible workplace accident in Melbourne (2011) a man was drenched in carbolic acid after a chemical pipe burst; and unfortunately, he swallowed some of the acid. Despite rushing to an emergency wash station he died a short time later.

When corrosive liquids are used in work operations, every task should be broken down and work sequences analysed carefully. Where could full faced PPE be used? Could the corrosive substance be placed in secure containers so that human contact is not required? How about the refinement of seemingly unrelated tasks (like routine maintenance)? Could that prevent a chemical pipe explosion?

2. Inhaling

Breathing corrosive vapours can irritate tissues in your nose, throat and lungs; as well as cause coughing and breathing problems. But some corrosive gases (like chlorine, ammonia, and hydrofluoric acid) will cause severe burning to the eyes, nose, throat, windpipe, and large airways within minutes of exposure.

Only last year (2017) two council workers and a refrigeration engineer were killed at an ice rink in Canada. The incident was caused by a leak of the highly corrosive gas ammonia.

When using corrosive gases in the workplace it’s essential to make sure the place is well ventilated. Some workplaces will require a complete system of exhaust hoods and ducting, whereas others may only need a single exhaust fan. A workplace may also require a gas monitoring system with alarms and automatic shut-offs.

Your workers should be thoroughly trained to use respiratory PPE as well as what to do in an emergency. In the case of accidental spillage or gas leak, additional equipment like gas masks with their own air supply should be available.

3. Absorption

Long term exposure and absorption of corrosive chemicals can cause serious complications of the internal organs. Take hydrofluoric acid (used when processing stainless steel, ceramics, glass and, enamels). Over time it accumulates in the bones, weakening and degenerating bone structure as well as causing damage to the heart, nerves and intestines. Also, many pesticides can enter the body through the skin and cause damage to the nervous system.

The risk of ingestion and absorption of chemicals is greatly reduced by using and wearing appropriate PPE: chemical resistant gloves, respiratory shields, eye guards, boots, coveralls, and aprons.

4. Direct contact

When splashed on the body, corrosive chemicals damage tissue almost immediately. Skin becomes irritated, then blisters and burns (severe burns are often fatal). Our eyes are particularly vulnerable to corrosives and injuries can cause permanent scars and blindness.

To avoid body contact with corrosive chemicals make sure your staff have access to sufficient PPE. And even more importantly — know how to correctly use it. Not just put it on, but how to take it off if they’ve been exposed to a contaminant.

Two contractors were injured at an oil refinery in the USA (2014) when they were splashed with sulphuric acid. Even though they were wearing full protective suits, acid clinging to the suits escaped onto their necks when the men took off their PPE in the decontamination showers.

Many workplace injuries occur when workers are dispensing corrosives from one container to another. In your workplace, please …

  • carefully handle containers as a damaged container may leak
  • use safety equipment like drum cradles and racks for moving large drums of corrosives
  •  don’t overfill containers
  •  keep containers of corrosives tightly closed
  •  regularly check storage containers for damage, leaks or expansion
  •  keep as little as possible onsite
  •  keep corrosive substances in a compliant chemical storage cabinet

It’s also essential to have eye wash stations and safety showers should a contamination or splashing incident occurs. Be vigilant with staff training so that they know what to do if a workplace incident involving corrosive substances occurs.

Register of Hazardous Substances

In Australia, it’s essential for a workplace to have a register of any hazardous substances used, handled or stored at the worksite. You’ll need up-to-date copies of SDS's and place the register somewhere your staff can easily grab the information in an emergency. BUT don’t wait for an emergency to teach your staff how to use the register.

Next Steps

This blog was written to help you understand and manage some of the risks associated with corrosive chemicals in the workplace.  But we strongly encourage you to take the next step and download our FREE eBook How to manage the risk of Hazardous Chemicals in the workplace. You’ll quickly learn how to fulfil your legal obligations for any hazardous substance at work (including corrosives) as well as how to make your workplace safer too. 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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