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Chemical Hazards

Published: 10th May 2016

If you were to ask the average worker how concerned he or she is about chemicals, most would probably answer that they don’t work with or around chemicals. Unfortunately, most people work with chemicals whether they realise it or not.

In the workplace, there are three basic kinds of chemicals: nontoxic, toxic, and nontoxic unless mixed with another specific chemical. Because so many of the chemicals that are toxic – that is, chemicals that just by their nature can cause injury – can harm you in many different ways, knowing the properties of the chemicals and the appropriate PPE one should use when working with or around chemicals is of the utmost importance.

Fortunately, we don’t all have to be chemists to protect ourselves from the potential dangers of chemicals. The safe handling and correct PPE for most industrial chemicals can be found on its Safety Data Sheet. You may have heard of Safety Data Sheets as Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) if you have worked with United States based firms, but in 2012 the United States adopted the Global Harmonization System of Classification and Labelling of Chemicals (GHS). The United Nations developed this system to standardise the regulations placed on chemicals in an effort to make it easier and safer to transport hazards internationally. Obviously, a universal standard on the safe use and handling of chemicals has the added effect of making workplace conditions safer for anyone working around or otherwise exposed to chemical hazards.

Central to GHS is the Safety Data Sheet, or SDS as it is more commonly known. Not all chemicals require a Safety Data Sheet, only those chemicals that meet the GHS criteria. These criteria include:

• Toxic to reproduction

• All mixtures containing ingredients that are carcinogenic

• Harmful to specific organs in excessive concentrations

Of course some chemicals alone do not meet any of these criteria unless mixed with other chemicals, so there are some instances where SDSs will be required for chemical mixtures.


The SDS is potentially a worker’s best friend, providing information on a chemical’s toxicity (how poisonous it is), reactivity (how likely is it to change when it is mixed with another chemical), flammability (how likely is it to burn), and other information that directly applies to how the chemical could potentially cause harm. In other words, in addition to listing suggested PPE, the SDS contains enough information for you to select other PPE depending on both the hazard and the circumstance in which you will be using the chemicals.

How chemicals can harm us

Many people mistakenly believe they have taken adequate protective measures simply by wearing PPE that protects them from touching a toxic substance, but physical contact is only one way chemicals can enter our bodies. When you are working with chemicals, remember that chemicals can enter our bodies via:

• Inhalation – breathing in particles or fumes

• Ingestion – swallowing the chemical

• Contact with mucous membranes (mouth or nose) or getting the chemical in your eyes

• Injection – puncturing your skin with an object containing or coated with the chemical


Breathing in a chemical can not only injure your nasal pathways and lungs, it can also allow the chemical to move from the lungs and enter our bloodstream; travelling from there to all our major organs, some of which may be particularly vulnerable to damage by that chemical.

The amount and type of PPE you will use, from a simple dust mask to a Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus (SCBA), will depend on:

• The state of the chemical – is it liquid, solid, or gas?

• The chemical properties – can it be blocked with a simple filter?

If it is solid, the type of protection will rely heavily on the size of the airborne particulates and how it’s handled. Relatively large particles may be able to be blocked using appropriate dust or paint masks, whereas smaller particles may require a respirator. If a chemical is dangerous when exposed to mucus membranes, it can be introduced by scratching one’s nose while wearing gloves that have the chemical on them.

It may seem laughable that a worker might accidentally inject dangerous chemicals into his or her body, but a puncture wound or cut from a broken vessel containing the chemical is precisely that, an injection.

Selecting appropriate PPE

Toxic chemicals can injure us in many ways. They can burn us, poison us, or cause us to develop cancer and other industrial diseases, whose symptoms might take years or even decades to appear. So when you are selecting PPE beyond (not instead of) the PPE identified by the SDS, there are some things you must consider:

1.  How can this chemical harm me? If, for example, merely touching the chemical is likely to cause a serious injury, like some acids, you will need PPE that covers any part of your body that could come into contact with the chemical. When considering how the chemical might come into contact with one’s skin, one must be mindful of events like chemical spills, splashes, or leaks in the vessel that contains the chemical.

2.  What should I do if I have come into unprotected contact with the chemical? In this case you should be sure you know what first aid is appropriate before even removing the chemical from storage, by thoroughly acquainting yourself with the first aid and emergency response, should you come in contact with the chemical.

3.  What is the useful life of the PPE I am using? Everything eventually wears out and exceeds its useful lifespan, and that includes PPE. It’s important to know how long the PPE is expected to provide adequate protection and replace it before it reaches that timeframe.

4.  How do I ensure the PPE is in a useable condition? Before using the PPE, inspect it for obvious defects (tears, signs of wear, the presence of chemicals) and never use it if you have any doubts as to whether or not it can provide you with adequate protection.

Other considerations

The protection afforded by your personal protective equipment is only as good as the condition the equipment is in. It is important, therefore, that you take care to always handle and store the PPE according to the manufacturers’ recommendations. Remember, however, that the manufacturer can only know so much about the circumstances in which you are using their products, so you should be mindful of extra precautions you may need to take to preserve the protective qualities of the PPE.

Beyond PPE

Beyond the use of PPE, when working with dangerous (or potentially dangerous) chemicals there are some critical measures you should take.

Label secondary containers. Often chemicals are shipped to us in unwieldy drums and in order to use the chemicals in a practical setting, we are forced to transfer smaller amounts to secondary containers. Too often, people neglect to label the secondary container, leaving people guessing as to the contents. Perhaps it is human nature, but in my experience most people who find a chemical in an unlabelled container assume that the chemical must be harmless. After all, who in his right mind would leave a harmful chemical in an unlabelled container?

OSHA offers the following guidelines for container labels:

• The identity of the chemical and appropriate hazard warnings must be shown on the label

• The hazard warning must provide users with an immediate understanding of the primary health and/or physical hazard(s) of the hazardous chemical through the use of words, pictures, symbols, or any combination of these elements

• The name and address of the manufacturer, importer, or other responsible party must be included on the label

• The hazard label message must be legible, permanently displayed, and written in English

Often, laboratory operations require transferring chemicals from the original labelled container into a secondary container such as a beaker, flask or bottle. Portable containers must comply with the labelling requirements listed above if any of the following events occur:

• Material is not used within the work shift of the individual who makes the transfer

• The worker who made the transfer leaves the work area

• The container is moved to another work area and is no longer in the possession of the worker who filled the container

• Labels on portable containers are not required if the worker who made the transfer uses all of the contents during the work shift

• When a secondary container is used for longer than one shift or does not meet the requirements outlined in the permanent container labels section, detailed previously, a label needs to be applied to the secondary container. This label must contain two key pieces of information: the identity of the hazardous chemicals in the container (e.g. chemical name) and the hazards present

• There are many ways to communicate this hazard information

• Employers should select a system that will work for each location

Of course this list was developed for United States workers and not all of these practices are still relevant; for example, printing the label in the native language of the workforce is far more valuable than a label printed in English if your workforce isn’t well versed in English, but most of the concepts listed here are excellent guidelines for labelling containers:

1.   Properly seal containers after they have been opened. Harmful chemicals often release toxic or flammable fumes that, over time, can accumulate to dangerous levels.

2.   Properly store chemicals. Even completely sealed chemicals should not be stored near other chemicals with which they can react. Containers may leak, be ruptured by the forks on an industrial vehicle or be otherwise damaged and leak, allowing them to react – often violently – with other chemicals stored nearby.

3.   Store flammable chemicals in a grounded and anchored flammables cabinet and ensure no other materials are also stored there. Keeping only flammable chemicals in the cabinet isolates it from potential fuel. Grounding a cabinet prevents an electrical charge or spark from igniting the chemicals stored within the cabinet, and anchoring the cabinet prevents it from being upset and spilling flammable materials.

4.   Clearly mark chemical storage areas as such and ensure that adequate warnings are posted to prevent workers from entering the area unaware of the jeopardy posed by the chemicals in the area.

5.   Never store open (unsealed) chemicals. Storing open containers of chemicals is very dangerous and yet very widespread, particularly if the person storing the chemicals has transferred the chemical to a secondary container.

6.   Store all chemicals when they are not in use. Once you have used a chemical properly seal it and put it back in its designated location even if you intend to use the chemical again a short time later.

7.   Properly store PPE when it is not in use. It is relatively easy to remove PPE when taking a break or at the end of a shift and then put the PPE back on when returning to the job site. This practice is extremely dangerous as safety glasses, splash shields, and ear plugs can quickly become contaminated with chemicals and when the worker reapplies the PPE.

8.   Train workers according to the Safety Data Sheets. The dangers associated with chemicals can change rapidly and continually and therefore it is extremely important that the Safety Data Sheets be incorporated in annual training. Research on the effects of chemicals that are initially thought to be benign often reveals the chemicals to be causes of cancer or other deadly industrial diseases.

9.   Treat all unknown chemicals as hazardous. Most industrial sites are littered with puddles of fluid that most at the site assume are harmless and usually water. Treating puddles, leaks or drips as harmless is potentially deadly. When one encounters a puddle of liquid one should treat it as harmful until it is determined to be harmless.

10. Audit the use and storage of hazardous chemicals. Periodic checks to ensure the proper use and storage of hazardous chemicals (and the associated PPE) are a critical element in keeping workers safe from injury with chemicals.

11. Keep your work area clean. Nobody should have to guess whether or not a substance in the workplace is a hazardous chemical and by keeping your work area clean you make the workplace safer.

There is no excuse for workers getting injured by chemicals. Whether we have puddles of black liquor (the highly toxic by product of processing paper pulp), flammable petroleum products, or any of the other potentially deadly chemicals in use in industry today, we have ample means to protect workers, if we chose to employ them.

Published: 10th May 2016 in Health and Safety Middle East

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Phil La Duke is an internationally noted thought leader on worker safety, culture change, and organisational development. He is the author of the weekly blog, and is a frequent guest blogger to,, and La Duke has been named one of the 101 most influential people in safety globally, is an editorial advisor and contributor to numerous prestigious publications. In addition to his writing credits, La Duke is a highly sought after speaker and consultant on safety and organisational change topics. Author of I Know My Shoes Are Untied. Mind Your Own Business.