Poisons are used at workplaces everywhere to aid in processes like printing and manufacturing, cleaning, degreasing, woodworking, painting and mining. This post discusses the use of poisons and solvents at work — and highlights how you can control these hazardous chemicals in your own operations.

DID YOU KNOW: Solvents are responsible for numerous workplace injuries and deaths? As one of the most common types of poisons, solvents must be handled and stored in a safe way to reduce risks including poisoning, fires and harm to the environment.

What is a Poison?

A poison is any substance capable of causing harm to a living creature from being inhaled, absorbed through the skin, or ingested. While poisons may be natural or synthetic (manufactured), they are all toxic and regarded as dangerous goods.

When humans are poisoned, multiple factors influence the severity of the poisoning.

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?

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As dangerous goods, poisons pose a risk to humans, animals and the environment.

What Type of Poisons are the Most Dangerous?

Even in the Australian Poisons Standard, 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.

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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 hazardous 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.

IMPORTANT: We suggest reading through some of our most popular posts 4 Tips for Chemical Safety in the Workplace to learn more about working safely with hazardous substances, such as solvents and poisons.

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. 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.

Solvent Hazards

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. When working with any types of dangerous goods it’s essential that the correct chemical handling procedures are followed by staff to ensure safety and minimise the risk of exposure.

paint brushes and solvent with building painting

Solvents, such as methylated spirits, acetone and toulene, are used across a wide range of industries.

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.

Are Poisons Flammable?

As well as emitting toxic vapours, solvents are usually highly flammable.

This means that your work environment must control the accidental ignition of solvents and their flammable vapours.

While compliant solvent storage, handling equipment, hazard signage, and staff training can assist with the control of flammable vapours from solvents, any uncapped container or chemical spill can quickly emit flammable vapours. These vapours can quickly travel through a workplace, potentially causing an ignition risk if they are to come into contact with heat, flames, sparks or electricity.

The key to controlling human harm, as well as fire risk, is to ensure that all containers are properly stored in bunded storage, work areas have sufficient ventilation so that vapours can safely disperse, and ignition sources are isolated from areas which store or handle flammable poisons.

REMEMBER: Never allow a poison or solvent to make contact with the skin or eyes. Workers with long term exposure to solvents can also develop dermatitis and other skin disorders.

Solvent Safety

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 for using solvents safely in the workplace:

  • 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 (PPE). Train each staff member to use their RPE and PPE properly, and make sure it fits.
  • If vapours are inhaled (or there is any type of exposure to solvents or poisons), immediately seek medical treatment. Follow the instructions in the safety data sheet (Section 4) and administer any first aid measures that are required.

REMEMBER: There are alternatives to hazardous chemicals in the workplace. 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 rule, keep poisons secured in a chemical storage cabinet away from heat, sunlight and ignition sources.

As part of the risk assessment process, consider a safety cabinet specially designed for toxic substances.

Staff using Flammable Cabinet-1-1-1-1

Refer to your safety data sheet to determine the requirements for storing poisons and solvents at work.

Your poison or solvent storage cabinet should have self-closing and self-latching doors, dual-skinned construction, a spill containment sump, and vent ports for mechanical ventilation. It must also feature the appropriate dangerous goods and hazard signage, including the Class 6 Toxic Substances diamond and/or Class 3 Flammable Liquid diamond, as well as a ‘No Smoking, No Ignition Sources’ hazard sign for those poisons that may ignite.

REMEMBER: Safety cabinets for poisons must be manufactured to Australian Standard AS NZS 4452 - The storage and handling of toxic substances.

Controlling Poisonous Chemicals

Now you know more about using poisonous substances in the workplace (especially the hazards associated with solvents) are you ready for the next step? We recommend reading 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.

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