Chemical Safety: What Not To Do
When I was little, one of my favorite games to play with my cousin Erica was something we made up and referred to as “Potions.” Here’s how you play:
Step 1: Search the house, gathering as many non-consumable liquids as you can find.
Step 2: Mix them all together in a bowl.
Erica and I usually stuck to different shampoos, body washes, bubble bath liquids, dish soaps, and maybe a couple sprays of glass cleaner. But on one particular day we decided to create something extra special. In our minds, the more types of liquids we added, the better.
So we grabbed a large bowl, brought it with us to the bathroom and proceeded to pour.
In went Herbal Essences shampoo and conditioner, Mr. Bubble bath liquid, bleach, Pine-Sol , Mr. Clean Multi-Purpose Cleaner, my dad’s cologne, contact solution, Soft Scrub, Resolve carpet cleaner, and who knows what else. We pretty much included everything we could find in the shower and cleaning cabinet.
Then we took a wooden spoon from the kitchen and began stirring our concoction, pretending like we were scientists crafting the perfect “potion.” At that point I remember the bathroom smelling like chemicals, but not so much that we couldn’t handle it. We were too preoccupied to care, anyway.
Once our mixture of death had been properly stirred, I decided it was time to take a big whiff. Bringing my nose down close to the bowl, I breathed in deeply to get the full experience of our labors.
What happened next I like to call the “Breath of Death” because literally, one moment my lungs were working, and the next moment they weren’t. As hard as I tried, I could not take a breath. It was like I had gotten the wind knocked out of me. I seriously thought the last thing I would see on this earth was the image of our old pink carpet as I flung my body out of the bathroom and fell face-first onto the floor in the hallway.
It took me a few seconds, but finally that first sweet breath of air came and I knew I would live to see another day.
And that was the end to “Potions.” Erica and I moved on to playing Barbies and Candy Land like normal 5-year-old girls, but that moment will forever be a reminder that mixing different liquids and chemicals is extremely dangerous.
Every day, though, millions of workers have to handle chemicals on the job. From janitors to lab workers, groundskeepers to hairdressers, over four million U.S. workers have occupations that require the use of chemicals. Exposure to chemicals can lead to eye, skin and lung irritation, as well as more serious health issues like asthma and cancer.
Not only is handling chemicals potentially dangerous, but it can also be pretty confusing. Where and how should hazardous chemicals be stored? What type of personal protective equipment do I need? What do I do if I accidentally splash chemicals on my clothes or in my eyes? These are important questions for anyone working in an environment with hazardous chemicals.
So here’s some knowledge on chemical classifications, exposure hazards, ways to protect yourself, and what to do if an accident occurs.
Chemicals are classified in different groups, and you can recognize hazardous chemicals based on their classification. There are three groups of classifications- physical hazards, health hazards and environmental hazards.
Chemicals in the “Physical Hazards” category are dangerous by their very nature. Examples include chemicals that are flammable, corrosive, explosive, or reactive.
Chemicals in the “Health Hazards” category have the potential to cause detrimental effects on a person’s health. Examples include poisons, sensitizers, carcinogens, and corrosives.
Chemicals in the “Environmental Hazards” category have the potential to cause damage to the ecosystem and wildlife, most notably the aquatic environment.
Working with chemicals brings an element of risk in itself, but there are several factors that increase the threat of chemical exposure, including:
- Unlabeled or improperly labeled containers
- Improper use or unsafe handling of chemicals
- Misuse or non-use of personal protective equipment (PPE)
- Unidentified odors, smoke or mist
- Spills of unknown materials
Chemical exposure can occur through inhalation, ingestion, absorption, and injection.
Breathing in contaminated air is the most common and often the most dangerous way a chemical can enter your body. Once in your lungs, a chemical can quickly absorb into the bloodstream. Gases, vapors, mists, dust, fumes, and smoke are all inhalation hazards.
Chemicals can enter your stomach when you eat or drink contaminated foods. This can happen when you fail to properly separate work and eating spaces, or when you handle food before washing your hands.
Sometimes when chemicals come in contact with the skin they can be absorbed and pass into the bloodstream. You can prevent exposure by using , like gloves, chemical-resistant outerwear, and face and eye protection.
Although uncommon in most workplaces, chemicals can enter the bloodstream via needles.
The severity of a chemical’s effect on your body is determined by several factors. Factors include the type of chemical, the length of time you were exposed, the concentration of exposure, the route of exposure, and your individual susceptibility.
HOW TO HANDLE CHEMICALS SAFELY
Chemicals can be very dangerous, especially when they aren’t handled safely. Unsafe handling can lead to chemical exposure, causing serious health problems.
You should never store a chemical with an obscure or missing label. When working with highly reactive chemicals, mark labels with the date of receipt before storing.
It’s also a good idea to store chemicals on shelves that have raised edges to prevent containers from sliding off. In addition, place containers holding liquids in chemical-resistant trays, and never store chemicals directly on the ground or above eye level.
After use, all chemical waste must be separated into categories to prevent incompatible mixtures. If chemicals are hot, allow them to cool to room temperature before disposal.
WHAT TO DO IF YOU DETECT A CHEMICAL EXPOSURE HAZARD
If you detect a possible chemical exposure hazard, immediately leave the area, alert your supervisor and follow your facility’s action plan.
Here are steps to follow when addressing a confirmed chemical hazard:
Identify the specific chemical hazard
Airborne hazardous chemicals are identified by air or dust sampling and analysis using an air monitor. This will detect a chemical’s presence, identify the specific chemical, and determine the airborne concentration. This information can then be used to determine whether or not it exceeds the Permissible Exposure Limit (PEL) for any employee. The PEL is the legal limit for exposure to a chemical substance. The concentration of a chemical is usually expressed in part per million (ppm). The PEL is usually given as a time-weighted average, which is the average exposure over an eight-hour time period.
Determine potential harmful effects
After the chemical has been identified, any harmful effects due to exposure must be determined.
Prevent further exposure
Finally, action must be taken to prevent harmful exposure. Your facility’s safety plan should describe procedures for protecting against exposure.
HOW TO PROTECT YOURSELF AGAINST CHEMICAL EXPOSURE
The best ways to protect against exposure to hazardous chemicals are to install protection systems at your facility and use personal protective equipment.
Protection systems can take the form of ventilation systems, local exhaust ventilation, and liquid and gas release detection.
Whether your facility has protection systems installed or not, you should ALWAYS use personal protective equipment. This is non-negotiable. Personal protective equipment for chemical safety includes eye protection, respiratory protection, protective clothing, gloves, and foot protection.
WHAT TO DO IF AN ACCIDENT OCCURS
Accidents can happen in the blink of an eye. Yes, even to you. So it’s important to always be prepared for emergencies through training and becoming familiar with your facility’s emergency response plan.
If a chemical accident occurs, take the following steps to reduce exposure:
- Avoid breathing gases or vapors
- Avoid skin contact
- Remove ignition sources if deemed safe to do so
- Evacuate the area
- Report the emergency to your supervisor
If you get a chemical in your eyes:
- Know where eye wash stations and showers are located, and how to use them.
- Hold eyes open and remove contact lenses if you wear them
- Flush eyes for a minimum of twenty minutes
- Aim the water at the base of your nose and let the water flow over your eye in the direction of your ear
- Cover eye with clean gauze and seek medical attention
If you get a chemical on your body:
- Get to the nearest safety shower and stand under the flow of water for at least 20 minutes
- Remove any clothing splashed with the chemical, including shoes and jewelry
- Afterward, seek medical attention and dispose of clothing
Learn more about hazard identification.