Chemical Hazards in the Workplace and How to Prepare for Them

Danger Hazardous Chemicals

Does your company have hazardous chemicals in the workplace? If so, you’re required to comply with OSHA’s Hazard Communication Standard, which requires you to develop day-to-day and emergency procedures for handling hazardous chemicals and then properly train employees in those procedures. Understanding the specific types of chemical hazards and how to prepare for the type(s) your facility deals with can help you develop clearer plans for employees and prevent possible incidents.

“The sound management of chemicals should include systems through which chemical hazards are identified and communicated to all who are potentially exposed. These groups include workers, consumers, emergency responders and the public. It is important to know what chemicals are present and/or used, their hazards to human health and the environment, and the means to control them.” – OSHA

Three main types of chemical hazards exist that you may encounter in your facility: health, physical and environmental hazards. Environmental hazards are not technically covered under OSHA’s Hazard Communication Standard, but they are covered by the Global Harmonized System (GHS), and being aware of them will benefit your facility in the long run. In this article we will look at the three main types of chemical hazards in greater detail. Then we’ll describe some concrete steps you can take to prepare for each type of hazard in your workplace.

Health Hazards

A health hazard is generally defined as a chemical that, according to scientific evidence, can cause acute or long-term health effects. The GHS divides these health hazards up into 10 classes such as carcinogenicity, acute toxicity and respiratory or skin sensitization. These categories are sub-divided into smaller categories; for example, the class carcinogenicity is divided into known human carcinogens and suspected carcinogens. It’s important for employees to know the specific effects of each chemical they work with, and for that reason it’s crucial to properly label chemicals with their contents, hazards and first aid information.
Symbol, Label
While all of that information is important, as a safety manager you may wonder how to deal with these health hazards on a larger scale. What can you do in the workplace that will prepare employees for any number of chemical hazards and potential emergencies?

Let’s take a look at some suggestions:

First, as mentioned above, do properly label all chemical containers. Implementing standard labeling as a facility-wide practice will ensure employees have the details they need should an exposure event occur. Obtaining a GHS industrial label machine can help you accomplish this task easily and cost-effectively.

Next, make sure employees know what personal protective equipment (PPE) such as gloves, goggles or flame-resistant clothing is necessary to handle chemicals that pose health hazards. Also make sure they are trained in using emergency supplies such as a spill kit.

In the event a hazardous chemical gets in someone’s eye, it is critical that employee quickly uses an emergency eyewash station. Many chemicals can cause eye irritation, and some can even cause blindness. Regardless of the chemical involved, flushing the eye for at least 15 minutes will be necessary. As a safety manager, you can ensure employees know where emergency eyewash stations are by posting signs and labels in your facility.

With any type of chemical, employees should know what emergency personnel to contact including medical help and the fire department. This information can easily be covered in training, and reminder signs with any relevant phone numbers can be posted.

Finally, you may want to consider whether it’s possible to switch to safer chemicals that pose less of a threat to human health. These decisions may be outside of your control, but if you do have a say in the matter, you can point out that making an informed substitution of a less hazardous chemical for a dangerous one can be an effective way to keep the workplace as safe as possible.

“It is widely recognized that the most effective method to eliminate or reduce adverse health and safety outcomes in the workplace is to eliminate hazards at the source, before applying other, less effective forms of protection.” – U.S. Department of Labor

Physical Hazards

chemical hazard, explosion
Physical hazards, like health hazards, impact the body, but in slightly different ways. In general, the term physical hazard refers to a hazard that threatens physical safety and deals with issues like fire, explosions, temperature and noise. Physical hazards related to hazardous chemicals typically involve substances that are flammable, under pressure, capable of heating themselves or are reactive in some way. Some example classes include flammable aerosols, gases under pressure and chemicals that, in contact with water, emit flammable gas.

So how can you prepare for these types of physical hazards in the workplace? As with health hazards, proper labeling is step one.

Second, have a policy about when and where to use PPE, particularly flame-resistant PPE. Since many physical hazards are caused by flammable chemicals, make sure employees handling them wear appropriate gear such as shirts, pants and gloves treated with flame retardants.

physical hazard, label

Next, consider the signs related to fire safety in your workplace. Labels pointing out where fire extinguishers, fire alarms and fire exits are located will help everyone get where they need to go in an emergency. Additionally, posted signs reminding employees not to smoke—especially around sensitive chemicals—may also be a good addition to your visual workplace.

As with chemicals that pose health hazards, those that pose physical hazards can lead to an emergency that requires evacuation or additional emergency responders. Make sure employees know when to contact medical and fire assistance and how to do so.

Environmental Hazards

OSHA does not include environmental hazards in its regulations, but the GHS, which OSHA recently adopted, does reference environmental information. An environmental hazard threatens the nearby natural environment, which can in turn impact human health. The types of environmental hazards, which you will likely see listed on container labels or safety data sheets, include things like acute and chronic aquatic toxicity.

chemical hazard, aquatic toxicity

As a safety manager, there are a few steps you can take to limit risks related to chemical environmental hazards in the workplace.

First, avoid using hazardous chemicals near waterways and storm drains, as they can get into the water supply and cause environmental harm.

If an incident does occur involving these chemicals and the surrounding environment, know who to contact. Depending on the type of spill and its location you may need to reach out to the local utility company or government organizations like the EPA.

Finally, consider selecting chemicals that are less harmful to the environment. If chemicals are less harmful for aquatic life, waterways and other parts of the environment, then they’re probably safer for employees to handle, too.

Train and Label

Taking some of these steps to prepare your facility for potential chemical hazards will make your workplace substantially safer. Remember that training is critical to creating a safe work environment. It’s a good idea to have refresher training periodically and to inform employees of any updates to safety measures related to health, physical or environmental hazards posed by chemicals. Additionally, keep in mind that appropriately placed signs and labels can remind employees of chemical hazards—and how to deal with them—on a daily basis. Simple diagrams explaining GHS pictograms can clear up confusion and labels directing employees to emergency equipment will help remind everyone what to do should a dangerous situation arise.

Additional Resources