Protecting Workers Against Chemical Exposures
According to OSHA, over 32 million workers (approximately 20 percent of the national workforce) are regularly exposed to chemical hazards in the workplace. Accidental exposure to hazardous chemicals causes a range of health issues, from skin disease and eye injuries to cancer and diseases of the lungs, kidneys, stomach, heart, nerves, brain and reproductive system.
In order to reduce the risk of chemical exposure in the workplace, employers must adhere to OSHA’s Hazard Communication Standard. Response to chemical exposure must be swift: It takes only 8 seconds for chemicals to penetrate the outer membrane of the eye and 10 to 15 seconds to cause severe skin injuries.
Developing a HAZCOM Program
Chemical safety in the workplace requires the development and implementation of a hazardous communication program or HAZCOM. A HAZCOM includes a written plan to reduce the risk of accidental exposure, employee safety training, a complete inventory of workplace chemicals, proper storage procedures, installation of eyewash stations and showers as needed, warning labels and signs clearly identifying hazardous substances, and safety data sheets for each chemical, including occupational exposure limits.
HAZCOM standards vary depending on the industry. OSHA standards for healthcare settings, for instance, are different from hazard communication in autoservise facilities, which differ again from those required of industrial facilities, the hospitality industry, or maintenance operations.
Occupational Exposure Limits (OELs)
Occupational exposure limits (also known as permissible exposure limits), define the maximum concentration of substance an employee can be exposed to over a set period of time. A chemical may have more than one occupational exposure limit depending on its concentration level and the amount of time in which employees are exposed to the substance.
Types of occupational exposure limits include:
- Time Weighted Average (TWA): A TWA limit defines the average exposure to a substance over a set period of time. TWAs are often used to calculate chemical safety in the workplace over the course of an eight-hour work shift.
- Short Term Exposure Time (STET): STETs determine exposure limits over shorter periods of time than TWAs--often fifteen minutes or less. STETs are intended to reduce the risk of exposure to chemicals which cause acute (fast-acting) reactions on the human body, such as acids and organic solvents.
- Maximum Allowable Concentration (MAC): Maximum allowable concentration OELs provide chemical concentration levels that should not be exceeded no matter how long the exposure time.
Chemical accidents in the workplace can result in exposure to multiple hazards at once, so all applicable occupational exposure limits apply to any employee activity.
Eyewash Stations and Showers
Should accidental exposure to hazardous chemicals occur, every second matters. Installing eyewash stations and showers within easy reach of employees can reduce the severity of chemical injuries--if employees are properly trained in their use. Safety showers and eyewash seminars teach employees how to use stations, the importance of not panicking and rubbing affected skin or eyes, and how to assist each other in the event of an accident.
Provide Appropriate PPE
Appropriate personal protective equipment is an important element of chemical safety. Goggles, face shields, respirators, chemical gloves, protective clothing, and proper footwear can all reduce the effects of chemical exposure.
While important, PPE is the last line of defense against chemical hazards in the workplace. A reliance on PPE is no substitute for engineering solutions to prevent exposure, proper training in the handling of dangerous chemicals, OELS, and other strategies designed to reduce the risk of exposure from occurring in the first place.