Many job sites involve potential exposure to toxic and harmful chemicals. These can be anything from common cleaning fluids like ammonia, to acids and flammable materials. Such chemicals can put workers at risk for a broad range of health problems and physical hazards such as irritation, allergic reactions, cancer risks, corrosion and flammability. It is important to know how to manage such chemicals, and to pass this knowledge on to your staff.
OSHA regulates worker exposure to hazardous materials and chemicals through its Hazard Communication Standard (HCS). This program is designed to ensure that information about chemical risks gets into the hands of workers and is easily understood. OSHA HCS requirements are as follows:
- Chemical manufacturers must evaluate all chemical hazards and produce safety data sheets and labels to communicate such hazards to customers.
- Employers who use or have hazardous chemicals in their job site or workplace are required to display labels and make safety data sheets available to workers who may be exposed, and must train all staff in appropriate handling of said chemicals.
- Staff training must include detailed information on chemical hazards and the proper measures to protect themselves from these hazards.
Not all chemical hazards involve physical exposure. Some create respiratory risks through potential inhalation of vapors or fumes. Employers are required by OSHA to identify and evaluate these potential respiratory dangers. On their website, OSHA lists various Occupational Exposure Limits, or OELs, that have been established by a number of safety organizations.
It is important for employers to understand common terminology that may be used to address toxic substances and chemical hazards. These include:
- Action Level: An airborne level which initiates medical surveillance and exposure monitoring activities. Usually calculated by a time-weighted average of 8 hours.
- Ceiling Limit: The maximum limit of exposure a worker may have to potentially hazardous materials.
- Sampling and analytical error: A statistical means by which the uncertainty regarding measurement of exposure is estimated.
- Short-term exposure limit: The maximum limit of exposure over a short period of time between 15 and 30 minutes.
- Time-weighted average: Average containment exposure over a period of time — usually 8 hours.
Controlling Hazards and Exposure
It is vital for supervisors to put in place proper practices, controls and oversight to control exposure to potentially hazardous chemicals. In situations where engineering controls are not feasible or are still in the process of implementation, the best way to handle this — and the method required by OSHA — is to use respirators and proper personal protective equipment (PPE).
Employers are required to provide these respirators and protections at no cost to employees. They must also provide adequate education and training in their proper use to ensure that such safety procedures are being followed.
Further information regarding limiting exposure to hazardous chemicals can be found at the OSHA website where a broad variety of instructional and informational materials can be found. Do you have any experiences with chemical exposure? We would be interested to hear your stories. Post them in the comments below.