Safety and PPE when working with chemicals
There are numerous short and long term health and safety hazards when working with chemicals including organ damage and cancer, respiratory, skin and eye irritation and potential explosion, fire and smoke related injuries.
Most people are exposed to chemicals when they inhale vapours, dusts, fumes or gases, while absorption through the skin may also be a significant source of exposure, according to Comcare. Ingestion is also a possible exposure source.
Chemical hazards include skin irritants, carcinogens or respiratory sensitisers. Sources include but are not limited to vehicle exhaust, cigarette smoke, paints and paint removers, batteries, degreasers, pesticides and certain building products.
Symptoms may be immediate or it may be decades before the ill health effects are evident.
Short Term Exposure Symptoms:
Potential Immediate Symptom
Respiratory tract exposure
Headache, nose and throat irritation, dizziness and disorientation.
Burning, itching and watering of the eyes.
Skin dryness, blistering, redness, rashes, and itching.
Long Term Exposure Symptoms:
Long term low-level chemical exposure can damage the nervous and immune systems, impair reproductive function and lead to cancer and organ-specific damage.
In the case of carcinogens such as asbestos or wood dust and formaldehyde, the incidence of cancer increases with higher exposure levels.
Furthermore, many common ototoxic chemicals found in paints, thinners, degreasers, glues and engine exhausts can also damage the auditory nerve or inner ear, causing hearing loss, tinnitus, deafness and vertigo.
Protecting Workers From Chemical Exposure:
As with all workplace hazards, chemical exposure must be managed using the hierarchy of control, starting with eliminating the hazard, substituting it with a safer version, isolating it, using engineering controls, administrative controls, and then using personal protective equipment (PPE) as a last line of defence.
Before implementing control measures, first perform a hazard and risk assessment, including analysis of a chemical’s safe data sheet (SDS). Suppliers of chemicals – including distributors, on-sellers and wholesalers – are required to provide an SDS with hazardous chemicals.
Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for chemicals
While PPE should only be relied upon as a last line of defence, its use is often essential when working with chemicals and required to supplement higher level control measures.
PPE when working with chemicals includes but may not be limited to overalls, aprons, footwear, gloves, chemical resistant glasses, face shields and respirators.
Appropriate PPE must be selected and used specifically for the hazardous chemical(s) in question, be a suitable size and fit, maintained appropriately and worn and used correctly by workers.
For example, when choosing appropriate chemical-resistant gloves that provide the best protection against a certain chemical, be aware that some gloves may be resistant to some chemicals but not others.
Furthermore, the effectiveness of PPE – when working with chemicals or any other hazard – relies on workers using it correctly. Dexterity and clear vision are essential as is training on how to fit and use PPE properly.
Other control measures businesses should consider when managing the health and safety risks associated with using, handling, generating and storing hazardous chemicals include but are not limited to:
- Providing information, training, instruction and supervision to workers
- Clearly labelling chemicals with warnings and safety signs
- Maintaining a hazardous chemical register and manifest
- Identifying any risk of chemicals reacting and ensuring their stability
- Ensuring workplace exposure standards for hazardous chemicals are not exceeded
- Providing health monitoring to workers (if relevant)
- Providing a spill containment system if necessary
- Obtaining the current SDS from the manufacturer, importer or supplier of the chemical.
- Controlling ignition sources and providing fire protection and firefighting equipment along with emergency and safety equipment
For more information see Safe Work Australia’s managing risks of hazardous chemicals in the workplace code of practice.