Most people think of chemicals as a completely separate hazard from the everyday hazards found in most industrial settings. For example, a worker who operates heavy equipment will be very confident working with and around equipment that is highly dangerous, but ask the same worker to come in close contact with acid and they’ll react as if they are in imminent danger.

For many people chemicals are a part of everyday life, and they will always be needed in the workplace. Household cleaners, gasoline, motor oil and lawn fertilizers are just a few of the more common chemicals that we use each day. Because chemicals are so much a part of our lives both on and off the job, we need to make sure that employees understand the hazards chemicals present and the safe handling of those chemicals.

Why we fear chemicals

One reason why people seem to fear chemicals is that the average person hears so many warnings about them — some valid and some warnings that are a little over the edge. This is especially true when it comes to chemical spills. It seems like every other day there is a news article about a tank truck spill or a railroad tank car fire. Although some of these incidents do present major hazards, many are just spills of chemicals that pose no immediate threat to the environment or to public safety.

A few years ago I was working at a manufacturing company in central California. Our facility was not hooked up to the city sewers so we treated chemicals that we were using in our production facility and sent them by tank truck to the city waste-water facility. The liquid that was transported was acid that had been neutralized with caustic.

One morning as I drove up to the plant I saw a fire truck at the gate. Evidently one of our truck drivers had not tightened the lid on the trailer and liquid splashed onto the streets all through town. Someone had reported the spill, and every government agency from the EPA to the city police had responded. They blocked the city streets and brought in hazmat teams to clean up what was basically a little caustic powder residue that remained after the liquid had evaporated.

All of this trouble and expense, and yes, it made the news — both newspaper and TV — for a spill that was not at all hazardous. Of course, the media played it up as a doomsday event. It is no wonder that the average citizen is afraid of chemical hazards.

Easily intimidated

Another reason for this fear of chemicals is a lack of understanding chemical labels. If a person doesn’t understand what such threatening words as “toxic,” “flammable,” “reactive,” “caustic” or “corrosive” actually mean then these terms can be very intimidating, making matters worse.

When a worker looks at a National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) diamond and doesn’t know what the numbers and colors represent, they are simply intimidated by the sign.

Finally, material safety data sheets (MSDS), although they are a great source of information about chemicals, can put a scare into workers if not properly understood. MSDSs need to be interpreted by someone who understands the chemical terminology and who realizes that MSDSs present worse-case scenarios and tend to alarm the reader.

Read an MSDS on household vinegar and see what I mean:


I think you get the point. It makes me afraid to put vinegar on my salad!

Knowledge is power

Let’s look at some basic safety tips for working with or near, or handling, chemicals. Having a little knowledge can help people overcome their fears.

  • Regardless of the chemical, do not get it on your skin or near your eyes or mouth. Chemicals can affect people in different ways. A chemical that makes me break out in a rash may not bother your skin in any way. Simple personal protective equipment (PPE) can keep your skin, hands and face protected. Gloves are the first defense. Using chemical gloves keeps the liquid off of your skin. There are some challenges with gloves in that different gloves are to be used with various chemicals. The glove manufacturer can provide this information and it is sometimes stated on the box containing the gloves.

    Safety glasses, goggles and face shields will keep the chemical off your face. In some cases you may need to wear a chemical splash suit to complete the protection.

  • Be able to identify the chemical by name and know its hazards. Knowing the chemical will help you decide on the appropriate PPE and how the chemical should be handled. There are several sources of information on chemicals, starting with the MSDS and including something as simple as the container label.

  • Handle and store the chemical appropriately. Placing chemicals in the wrong type of unlabeled container is one of the most common hazards. Chemicals often have special storing needs and may also need special containers. Always work with chemicals in a well-ventilated area.

  • Never add water to a concentrated acid. This is one of the more common mistakes that occur in industry. A concentrated acid will react with water, resulting in the generation of heat and vapors.

  • Take necessary precautions. Employees need to understand the hazards related to chemicals that they work with and how to work safely with those hazards. After all, chemicals provide no more risk than other hazardous items at your workplace.

    Think about the hazards that a worker faces when operating a large wood saw. There are moving parts, sharp equipment and flying wood chips. The saw operator can work safely with the machine by making sure that guards are in place around the moving parts, by not coming in contact with sharp edges, and by wearing eye and face protection so that the wood chips do not strike his face.

    While working with a chemical, similar safe behaviors are required. They may include wearing a respirator, chemical gloves, goggles (and/or face shield) and a chemical apron.

    Importance of labels

    Employees should be able to look at a chemical label and get the information they need to use the chemical safely.

    OSHA requires that all labels contain the following information:

    • the identity of the material;
    • the name and address of a responsible person from whom information can be obtained if necessary;
    • precautionary hazard warnings.

    Other items that ANSI recommends are:

    • labels should use words such as DANGER, WARNING, CAUTION;
    • POISON indicates toxic chemicals;
    • what to do if exposed to the chemical;
    • what to do in case of fire or chemical spill;
    • chemical handling and storage.

    The label will indicate the chemical’s primary hazard — information that is vital to know. Unlike the MSDS, a label provides specific information on the primary hazards. For example: “Bleach – do not mix with ammonia or other chemicals.” Although this warning is on bottles of bleach, people are still known to mix bleach and ammonia and be overcome by the fumes.

    When employees understand chemical hazards by knowing the terms and understanding the labels they will be safer employees. Make chemical safety a priority at your company.

    SIDEBAR: Chemical terminology

    If your employees work with chemicals they need to understand chemical terms and chemical communications such as signs and MSDS sheets.

    During training, employees should learn the following chemical-related terms:

    Corrosives — having the capability or tendency to cause corrosion; gradually destructive; steadily harmful.

    Acid — having a pH of less than 7.

    Base — having a pH of more than 7.

    NOTE: Both bases and acids can be corrosive.

    Toxic — capable of causing injury or death; poisonous.

    Oxidizer — a substance that oxidizes another substance, especially one that supports the combustion of fuel; an oxidizing agent.

    Reactive — capable of reacting chemically.

    Carcinogen — a cancer-causing substance or agent.

    SIDEBAR: Case study in chemophobia

    A Texas town concerned about giant high-temperature cement kilns spewing millions of pounds of toxic pollutants such as arsenic, cadmium, benzene and dioxins each year recently invited Erin Brockovich, the California environmental activist made famous in a 2000 movie starring Julia Roberts, to open an investigation into three nearby cement plants, according to the Chicago Tribune.

    More than 500 residents of Midlothian — the “Cement Capital of Texas” — gathered in a town hall meeting to air concerns that something in Midlothian’s air or water might be making them sick.

    Evidence is mostly anecdotal, and few epidemiological studies have been done, according to the article. But many residents claim to know too many neighbors with cancer, birth defects and lung ailments for it all to be mere coincidence.

    “There’s no way we know what the effect will be of these thousands of chemicals on people’s health,” an environmental activist with a local group called Downwinders at Risk told the paper. “Some of these are chemicals that we’ve never been exposed to before.”

    Studies fail to find health effects

    City officials strongly deny anything is wrong, citing more than two dozen state studies in the past ten years that failed to find any correlation between pollution from the cement plants and adverse health effects.

    “I wouldn’t live here or raise my kids here if I felt there was an issue of safety,” said the town mayor, a 20-year resident. “I think you’ll find anecdotal reports of health issues in any community you live in.”

    Brockovich found herself in the position many EHS pros are familiar with when it comes to dealing with toxic chemical fears. “I don’t have all the answers,” she said. “But I would like to get some of the facts.”