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 theyâ€™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 chemicalsOne reason why people seem to fear chemicals is that the average person hears so many warnings about them â€” 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 â€” both newspaper and TV â€” 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 intimidatedAnother reason for this fear of chemicals is a lack of understanding chemical labels. If a person doesnâ€™t understand what such threatening words as â€œtoxic,â€ â€œflammable,â€ â€œreactive,â€ â€œcausticâ€ or â€œcorrosiveâ€ 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 doesnâ€™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:
Effects of Exposure: PROLONGED INHALATION OF VAPORS CAN CAUSE IRRITATION TO RESPIRATORY TRACT. WILL CAUSE EYE IRRITATION - SMARTING AND REDDENING OF THE EYE. First Aid: INHAL:REMOVE TO FRESH AIR. SUPPORT BREATHING (GIVE O*2/ARTF RESP) :FLUSH W/COPIOUS AMOUNTS OF WATER. CALL MD. EYE:FLUSH IMMEDIATELY AND THOROUGHLY WITH WATER FOR AT LEAST 15-20 MINUTES (TIMED BY A CLOCK). CALL A PHYSICIAN. INGEST:LARGE AMOUNTS, WATER SHOULD BE CONSUMED TO DILUTE. DO NOT INDUCE VOMITING. DO NOT GIVE EMETICS OR BAKING SODA. CALL A PHYSICIAN.
I think you get the point. It makes me afraid to put vinegar on my salad!
Knowledge is powerLetâ€™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.
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.
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 labelsEmployees 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 chemicalâ€™s primary hazard â€” information that is vital to know. Unlike the MSDS, a label provides specific information on the primary hazards. For example: â€œBleach â€“ do not mix with ammonia or other chemicals.â€ 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 terminologyIf 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 â€” having the capability or tendency to cause corrosion; gradually destructive; steadily harmful.
Acid â€” having a pH of less than 7.
Base â€” having a pH of more than 7.
NOTE: Both bases and acids can be corrosive.
Toxic â€” capable of causing injury or death; poisonous.
Oxidizer â€” a substance that oxidizes another substance, especially one that supports the combustion of fuel; an oxidizing agent.
Reactive â€” capable of reacting chemically.
Carcinogen â€” a cancer-causing substance or agent.
SIDEBAR: Case study in chemophobiaA 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 â€” the â€œCement Capital of Texasâ€ â€” gathered in a town hall meeting to air concerns that something in Midlothianâ€™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.
â€œThereâ€™s no way we know what the effect will be of these thousands of chemicals on peopleâ€™s health,â€ an environmental activist with a local group called Downwinders at Risk told the paper. â€œSome of these are chemicals that weâ€™ve never been exposed to before.â€
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.
â€œI wouldnâ€™t live here or raise my kids here if I felt there was an issue of safety,â€ said the town mayor, a 20-year resident. â€œI think youâ€™ll find anecdotal reports of health issues in any community you live in.â€
Brockovich found herself in the position many EHS pros are familiar with when it comes to dealing with toxic chemical fears. â€œI donâ€™t have all the answers,â€ she said. â€œBut I would like to get some of the facts.â€