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When chemicals are used, stored, or generated in the workplace, there are unique hazards. Some have properties that make them an immediate safety concern, like explosive, flammable, and corrosive chemicals. Others cause adverse health effects on our organs and body systems. Adverse health effects my result in occupational diseases like cancers and Parkinson’s Disease (a progressive nervous system disorder that affects movement).
Over the last several decades, research has helped us better understand why certain illnesses are common in certain occupations. It has also led to advances in preventing occupational disease through the implementation of control measures, such as using alternative chemicals that are less harmful. We continue to learn more about the adverse health effects caused by exposure to certain hazardous chemicals, inspiring the work of organizations like the Occupational Cancer Research Centre and its Occupational Disease Surveillance Program, a system that identifies and monitors trends in work-related diseases in Ontario.
Identifying Hazards and Assessing Risk
Each workplace is unique. Employers have a responsibility to recognize the hazards by identifying all chemicals that are used, stored, handled, and generated in their workplace. They must also assess the risk of exposure to chemicals for their specific workplace, considering both the likelihood and severity of the exposure. These risks will be dependent on the chemicals that are present, the type and duration of tasks being performed, the work environment, and other workplace-specific factors. Once risks are assessed, they must implement appropriate control measures, following the hierarchy of controls (more on this below). In some situations, additional information such as occupational hygiene monitoring is needed to assess the hazard.
Understanding routes of exposure is another key part of the risk assessment. Inhalation is the most common, followed by contact with skin or less frequently, eyes. Accidental ingestion can happen if food, hands, or cigarettes are contaminated, so workers should not drink, eat, or smoke in areas where they may be exposed to chemicals. Injection is a less common method of exposure, occurring when a sharp object punctures the skin and injects a chemical directly into the bloodstream. Regardless of how the chemical gets into the body, once inside it is distributed by the blood stream. In this way, the chemical can harm organs which are far away from the original point of entry, as well as where it had entered the body.
It may be many years between the time of exposure to the hazardous chemical and the development of a disease. This is known as the latency period. Many occupational diseases have longer latency periods – they tend to be detected after prolonged exposure over time, making it challenging for researchers to track and study. For example, mesothelioma (from asbestos exposure) rarely appears less than 10 years from the time of the first exposure and it may only appear after 40 years. It is critical that employers provide education and training about the potential hazards of the products and how to work with them safely.
There are several places to obtain information on the hazards and how to work safely with chemicals, including the supplier and workplace labels, and safety data sheets (SDSs). Section 2 of the SDS includes an overview of the physical and health hazards and any special warnings about the physical and health hazards of the chemical. Always consult the manufacturer’s instructions for the safe use, handling, and storage of the substance. You can also source credible information from health and safety organizations (e.g., your jurisdiction’s occupational health and safety regulator, CCOHS, NIOSH, CNESST, RTECS, OSHA, etc.).
General health and safety when working with chemicals
After the hazards and risks of chemicals have been identified and assessed, appropriate control measures need to be put in place to protect workers. It is important to control the hazards by considering the most effective measures first, also known as the hierarchy of controls. Elimination and substitution are the first and most effective control measures in the hierarchy, which involve removing the hazardous chemical from the workplace and/or replacing it with a less hazardous one. If elimination or substitution is not feasible or if there is remaining risk, the next most effective measure is engineering controls. These include design updates or modifications to plants, equipment, ventilation systems, and processes that reduce the source of exposure. Administrative controls, the third most effective measure, alter the way the work is done, including timing or work, policies, work practices and other rules. Work practices involve standards and operating procedures such as training, housekeeping, equipment maintenance, personal hygiene practices, and other workplace-specific procedures. Workers also need to be trained on these workplace- specific procedures, including first aid measures in case of exposure and how to respond to spills. The last control measure to consider when other controls are unable to adequately protect workers is personal protective equipment (PPE).
Workplace hazard control should be overseen and implemented by qualified individuals, and in consultation with health and safety committees or representatives, supervisors, and workers. It is also important to always follow the requirements of the applicable occupational health and safety legislation, fire codes, building codes, environmental regulations, transportation of dangerous goods (TDG) regulations, and industry standards. When developing procedures for proper storage and disposing of a chemical, follow the recommendations from sections 7 and 13 of the SDS, along with any regulatory requirements, standards, and codes for your jurisdiction. Ensure all containers are clearly labeled to avoid misuse or incidents.
The psychological safety of a workplace has the potential to be a major hazard. Stress is often a factor when workers take shortcuts with handling chemicals, so it’s crucial that employers create an environment where workers are encouraged to come forward immediately to report hazards such as exhaustion, a lack of proper personal protective equipment, missing labels, or improper storage. Workers need to feel safe to voice their concerns and to request additional training or other solutions to protect their health and safety, without fear of reprisal or humiliation.
When working with a chemical, make sure the necessary controls are followed to limit exposure, as outlined in your workplace’s procedure for the specific chemical and task. This will include requirements for ventilation, the kind of PPE that needs to be worn, proper storage and disposal procedures, and other measures. If you have not received training on how to work safely with the chemical, or have other concerns, report this immediately to your supervisor. You can also speak to your health and safety committee or representative for guidance.
Tips & Tools
Hantavirus is a rare, sometimes fatal, lung infection caused by breathing in contaminated particles from the droppings, urine, and saliva of infected wild rodents, especially deer mice. The lung disease is known as hantavirus pulmonary syndrome.
Hantavirus symptoms usually start within one to six weeks of exposure. They include fever, muscle aches, cough, headaches, nausea, and vomiting. Some people develop severe symptoms that can be life threatening. Seek medical attention immediately if you have a cough, fever, and shortness of breath.
To eliminate the risk of breathing in the particles, limit dust creation during clean-up and treat all rodent droppings as being potentially infected while taking additional precautions to prevent exposure.
Avoid sweeping an affected area as particles can become airborne and breathable by workers. Infection is also possible by touching something that has been contaminated, and then touching your nose, mouth, or eyes. Preventing rodent infestations and properly cleaning and disinfecting contaminated areas promptly can help prevent disease.
8 tips for cleaning
* Note that the use of respirators in the workplace requires fit testing and training on the safe use, storage, and maintenance of the respiratory protection provided.
The aim of a risk assessment is to identify hazards and risk factors that have the potential to cause harm, analyze and evaluate the risk associated with that hazard, and then remove that hazard or minimize the level of its risk by adding control measures. By doing this, you are creating a safer and healthier workplace.
Incorporating risk mapping into your risk assessment procedure can be helpful in preventing injuries. Risk mapping uses a map or floorplan of the workplace to indicate where incidents are happening. You can then prioritize the areas based on frequency and severity, find out what is causing worker injury, and identify appropriate control measures.
The Workplace Compensation Board of Nova Scotia has created the Occupational Health and Safety (OH&S) Risk Mapping Tool, intended to be used in any workplace or work area. Employers, workers, joint occupational health and safety committee members, and safety representatives can use this tool to help identify, assess, and control injury hazards in the workplace.
There is no one way to assess risks and there are many risk assessment tools and techniques, so choose the method that best matches your situation. In all cases, the risk assessment should be completed before beginning any activity or task.
Here are some additional resources, including templates, to help you develop your risk assessment process.
CCOHS releases new podcasts each month to help you stay current and informed on workplace health, safety, and well-being in Canada.
New Podcast: Identifying and Monitoring Trends in Occupational Disease
Tracking patterns and trends in occupational disease in different industries can help target prevention efforts. We talk with Paul Demers from the Occupational Cancer Research Centre about the Occupational Disease Surveillance System (ODSS) and what the data reveals.
Podcast runs: 8:07 Listen to the podcast now
Encore Podcast: Protection from Summer Pests
Unpleasant encounters with ticks and mosquitos can lead to diseases such as Lyme disease and West Nile virus. This episode provides helpful information outdoor workers can use to protect themselves from these pesky summer pests.
The podcast runs 4:49 Listen to the podcast now.
This season don’t forget about protecting workers from the heat and sun.
Check out these CCOHS resources to help raise awareness and stay safe this summer.
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The Health and Safety Report, a free monthly newsletter produced by the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS), provides information, advice, and resources that help support a safe and healthy work environment and the total well being of workers.
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