- Recognize workplace chemical hazards and the risks associated with their use
- List conditions that may present an exposure risk, possible routes of exposure, and the factors that influence an individual's reaction to a chemical exposure incident
- Demonstrate safety precautions that should be taken by workers and employers to minimize exposure to chemicals
- Demonstrate safe storage, transport, and disposal practices for hazardous chemicals
- Describe appropriate response actions in the event of a chemical incident
Available in English, Spanish
5-Min Course Available
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Labor Statistics, OSHA
If you work with industrial chemicals each day, then you make your living in a high-risk work environment. Chemicals are a broad category, but almost always we’re talking about substances that are unpredictable, unstable, and dangerous when handled unsafely. Chemicals may be made of organic or inorganic compounds that, in some combination, are not naturally occurring in the environment, which is part of the reason they present a danger. They are normally highly refined and now more than ever, created for specialized processes or purposes.
Chemicals are dangerous because there are so many ways in which these substances can inflict trauma for workers. Certain chemicals contaminate the air and cause respiratory distress. Others are highly combustible. And some, when they come into contact with the skin or are physically ingested, create very nasty problems. If handled improperly, chemicals may burn, explode, cause cancer and other illnesses, or poison and sicken.
In your workplace, chemicals may come in many different forms; they may be dusts, mixtures, or common materials like paints, fuels and solvents. The potential health effects from exposure depend upon the chemical itself, how it is used and what protections are in place to keep you safe.
Working with chemicals always involves risk. Carelessness and ignorance of the dangers chemicals may present greatly increases the risk of exposure, or property damage and personal injury. Because there is so much to learn about the safe handling of specific chemicals, ignorance is a factor commonly cited in chemical related accidents.
Understanding the potential dangers of chemicals you are likely to encounter will help you to make informed decisions regarding safe handling, and to take the appropriate protective measures to avoid accidental exposure, measures that include the use of personal protective equipment and precautions to avoid taking the risk of chemical exposure home with you.
Every day you encounter numerous signs and symbols designed to provide clear information and direction while keeping you out of harm’s way. Just like road signs provide recognizable directions through symbols, there are signs in your workplace that are designed to guide you.
The OSHA Hazard Communication Standard (HCS) is the guiding protocol for identifying and clearly marking chemical hazards. When you see a large, industrial drum barrel with an unusual label, involving different colors or symbols, you can thank the Hazard Communication Standard. HCS allows for two types of labels. Over time, recognition of these simple, special labels will help you identify chemical hazards.
The first type of label is the original manufacturer’s label required on original shipping containers. When chemicals are manufactured and placed into containers, they must be properly labeled for identification and use. The other type is a manufacturer’s label that is part of a system that meets OSHA’s HCS requirements for secondary containers.
Chemicals in original manufacturer containers bear pictograms which are a symbolic representation of the physical, health and environmental hazards of the chemical inside. Defined by the HCS, there are nine pictograms standardized under the Globally Harmonized System (GHS), and each one represents a distinct hazard classification. These pictograms can be found on the manufacturer’s label, depending upon the hazards present. In addition, these same pictograms will be found on the chemical’s Safety Data Sheet.
It’s really good for someone in the workplace to be familiar with all of this stuff because, again, ignorance causes problems when it comes to dealing with chemicals.
The classifications represented by GHS pictograms can be separated into three categories: physical hazards, health hazards and environmental hazards.
In order for chemicals to harm you, they must get into or onto your body. There are several ways this can occur and these are known as routes of exposure: inhalation, ingestion, absorption, and injection. Additionally, the length of time and how often you are exposed to a chemical will influence the effects it has on your body.
Some chemicals can cause serious and immediate health effects while others require years to cause damage to the body. Acute exposure is a brief, intense exposure, usually of a higher concentration, that produces an immediate health affect. Typical effects of acute exposure include nausea, headache, blurred vision, trouble breathing and coughing.
Chronic exposure, the type most associated with chemical related occupational illness, typically involves a consistently low exposure, but over an extended period of time. Sustained exposure to materials such as asbestos, lead, and silica accounts for a chronic exposure risk. Symptoms of chronic exposure vary widely depending upon the material, exposure, and your individual susceptibility.
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