How to Handle Workplace Chemicals – Exposure Prevention

Hazardous chemicals are often an unavoidable part of production. Depending on the industry you are in, employees may be routinely exposed to harmful substances and it’s your responsibility to make sure their health and well-being do not suffer as a consequence. While many methods for doing so (wearing personal protection equipment, etc.) are fairly obvious, others require a little deeper analysis. Additionally, you want to be able to control for safety at various stages of production, from when the chemical is first used, to when it is transported, to when it is stored at the end of the day.

Controlling Initial Exposure

One of the first ways to look at minimizing the risk of working with harmful chemicals is to isolate as much of the process as possible. In many cases, this means that the worker handling the chemical(s) is in his or her own room/booth. This effectively prevents other employees, who might not be assigned to work with those chemicals and therefore aren’t wearing proper PPE, from exposure. Unfortunately, isolation is mentally unhealthy and should be minimized by not requiring long shifts of any one chemical handler.

Additionally, you may be able to substitute a substance you’re currently using for a much less toxic alternative. This is the case in many, many instances but often tried-and-true materials win out and businesses never bother investigating safer alternatives. While it can be burdensome having to find and implement a suitable alternative, you can save in the long run by not having to pay for as much specialized training or equipment.
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During Handling

Sometimes, safer alternatives can’t be engineered and you have to stick with a more harmful chemical. In these cases you need to think about how you can best keep employees in close contact safe. Here are a few areas you’ll need to consider:

  • Record keeping & organization: Labeling all hazardous materials and accounting for them is vital to running a safe operation. Make sure you have a label printer on hand (such as this) in all departments that may contain hazardous materials. With poor record keeping, a chemical barrel that goes unaccounted for could simply have been used up, but it could also be improperly stored somewhere, causing an immediate physical or air pollution risk to your workers.
  • Training: HAZWOPER requires a certain number of hours of training from any employees handling dangerous chemicals or waste. Ensuring that your workers not only have this training, but that it also includes emergency and exit procedures specific to your work place – such as what to do in the event of a chemical spill – is important. This training should also make employees aware of chemical handling basics: not eating or drinking on the job, inspecting their gloves, goggles, respiratory and PPE suits before use, etc.

After Handling/Housekeeping

Good housekeeping is important to getting a workspace ready for the next day and for safely storing chemicals overnight or until their next use.

  • The workspace: Any station hazardous materials enter throughout the course of the day should be wiped down at the end of work hours; ideally this should happen after each and every shift so that an employee doesn’t touch or set something in an area they didn’t know was contaminated. Tools and equipment should have designated places to hang or be stored, and should also be washed before someone else uses them since workers may touch the outside of gloves or other used equipment while putting them on.
  • Storage: All containers should be sealed airtight when not in use, and stored in a room with adequate ventilation. Depending on your operations, it may make more sense to keep materials out of storage all day, and then place them back at night, rather than between each individual use. Also, be sure that both the lids and containers themselves are labeled, and that they match up correctly when stored.

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Tony, Nice Work!

It’s unfortunate that in this day and age, thousands of U.S. workers continue to get sick or die from occupational exposure to chemicals each and every year. Recently, OSHA announced it was going to launch two new web resources that will hopefully reduce these figures significantly.

The first resource is a toolkit that will aid employers in identifying safer chemicals to use in place of more hazardous ones. The toolkit will take employers step-by-step through information, methods, tools and guidance to either eliminate hazardous chemicals, or make substitution decisions by finding a safer chemical, material, product or process.

You can find the new toolkit for identifying safer chemicals here.

The second resource OSHA announced is a Annotated Permissible Exposure Limits or annotated PEL tables. This will enable employers to voluntarily adopt newer, more protective workplace exposure limits.

-Kyle Holland, fellow blogger at Creative Safety Supply

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