Hazardous Substances in the Workplace
Safety vs Health
There are many hazardous substances in the workplace. In the world of health and safety there is very often a greater emphasis on the “safety” rather than “health”. Unsurprisingly, it is the safety side of things that tends to make the headlines; falls from roofs, accidents with machinery, vehicle accidents etc. However the number of fatalities is relatively low at around 150 per year. Compare this with around 12,000 lung disease deaths annually from exposure to hazardous substances. On top of that are another 2500 from mesothelioma caused by past exposure to asbestos (Source: HSE 2017/2018).
The problem is that accidents are more immediate and obvious. You know if you have broken a bone or cut yourself! Illness caused by hazardous substances in the workplace is often far more progressive and insidious, so you don’t notice the problem until it is too late, sometimes many years later. This also means that employers are not always so good at protecting their people from the potential dangers and employees are not always able to recognise the long term hazards that they may be facing.
What sort of substances are we talking about?
Hazardous substances in the workplace includes literally any material you use that could cause you harm. Traditionally people tend to think of “chemicals” as a catch-all term, but it refers to liquids, powders, gases, solids and also the biological substances you might find working in hospitals or in farming. The range of materials is enormous it is not always obvious where the materials are hiding or how you might come to harm.
In established industries such as manufacturing, the materials used are usually well known and controlled accordingly. Less industrial settings like offices, schools and nurseries still have a number of hazardous substances. These are very often not recognised, as the workplace tends to be regarded more as a domestic setting.
How might I be harmed?
Hazardous substances in the workplace are likely to cause either an acute (immediate) injury or a chronic (long-term) illness. Typically, contact of hazardous liquids with the skin or eyes will have an immediate effect, particularly where products contain string acids or alkalis. Some will cause long-term skin disorders such as dermatitis or even skin cancer. Vapours from chemical substances can enter the lungs and cause either acute effects to the nose, throat and lungs or chronic effects by entering the body systems, causing damage to vital organs. The same is true for ingestion, although this is more likely to occur by accident rather than routinely.
It is worth noting that being able to smell the vapour from a substance won’t give you an indication of the concentration in the air. If the concentration is very high your sense of smell can be overwhelmed and stop detecting anything at all!
Also don’t forget that even innocuous and seemingly harmless substances like water can cause problems if exposure is frequent and over a long period of time, This can be an issue for hairdressers, cleaners and ceramics workers.
So how do I know what I’m looking for?
This is where it can be quite tricky to know where potential hazards are. If you were asked to work with the following substances, would you be concerned and where might you find them?
- Hydrochloric acid
- Sodium hydroxide
- Citric acid
- Sodium hypochlorite
Some of these look quite dangerous but all are commonly found in the familiar products below: –
- Toilet cleaner
- Oven cleaner
- Surface/window cleaner
- Kettle de-scaler
- Glue remover
- Antiseptic solution
- Washing powder
………and many more………
So, it is not always easy to recognise where hazardous substances may be lurking under the sink or in the cleaning cupboards. The trade names sometimes give you a bit of a clue as to their contents (e.g. persilicate in Persil), but very often you just can’t tell.
You also need to be careful when using these products that you don’t mix any together that could cause a problem. A good example is mixing an acid toilet cleaner with bleach as this will release chlorine gas, which is very toxic indeed by inhalation and can cause serious lung damage.
Are there any laws about this?
The effects of exposure to hazardous substances has been known for hundreds of years, but unfortunately this was often regarded as an acceptable risk involved in particular types of work – “it’s a smelly, dirty job, just get on with it!”
It is only relatively recently that laws have been brought in to protect employees from exposure, firstly as part of the Health and Safety at work Act (1974) and then more specifically in the Control of Substance Hazardous to Health (1992). It applies to ALL workplaces and ALL materials you use that might be a risk to your health.
The laws also require suppliers of all substances to provide a Safety Data Sheet (SDS) which contains all you could possibly want to know about the ingredients, storage, use, potential harm and all the control measures you need to take and much more besides. However, for the sort of products listed above, you will not be given an SDS when you buy these in the shops, so what do you do?
Fortunately, the law also requires manufacturers to provide labels on all products that clearly point out the hazards and the precautions you need to take. They also have to display symbols so that you can easily tell what sort of hazard might be present.
A few years ago, the symbols were changed from orange squares to a new global system with red diamond shapes, which are meant to be instantly recognisable, so have a go at seeing if you can tell what they mean; these are the most common ones you will see: –
Number: 1 2 3 4 5
The answers are: –
- Health hazard
- Environmentally hazardous
What do I need to do stay safe?
There are a number of things you can do to minimise your risk of harm: –
- Eliminate the use of a harmful product or substance and use a safer one.
- Use a safer form of the product, e.g. paste rather than powder.
- Change the process to emit less of the substance.
- Enclose the process so that the product does not escape.
- Extract emissions of the substance near the source.
- Have as few workers in harm’s way as possible.
- Provide personal protective equipment (PPE) such as gloves and coveralls. PPE must fit the wearer.
Some of these are easier to do than others, but you will see that PPE is the last on the list, so you should consider all the other control measures first before reaching for the Marigolds and putting on aprons.
In addition, you need to make sure the employer has given adequate training and information about using any substances, so that you can work safely. That should include how to wear any PPE and take it on and off without contaminating yourself.
The most common exposure symptoms are breathing difficulties and dermatitis or other skin conditions. If you have any concerns over the substances you use, you should notify your employer at the earliest opportunity and get medical assistance.
Rick Avory, Health and Safety Consultant