Exposure to toxic chemicals can have a wide range of adverse effects, from mild allergies and temporary symptoms to cancer and even death. What makes chemical exposure particularly dangerous is that it often goes unnoticed until significant exposure has occurred and the symptoms have progressed considerably. Carbon monoxide poisoning is one such example.
Chemical exposure can occur in any industry at any stage of operation. Workers may get exposed while handling, storing, transporting, using or disposing of hazardous chemicals. Although not limited to these industries, it is most common in the construction, manufacturing, agricultural, and welding industries.
Understanding chemical exposure pathways and hazards is integral to making sure that safety best practices are being followed in the workplace.
How Chemicals Can Enter The Body
There are four main chemical exposure pathways:
- Inhalation (through the nose) – Inhalation is the most common route for chemicals to enter the body and is the primary pathway for toxic gases and vapours. Vapours that are inhaled enter the body and get into the lungs, from where they then enter the bloodstream and get distributed to other parts of the body.
- Dermal or Ophthalmic Absorption (through the skin or eyes) – Absorption is the second most common exposure pathway. The skin and eyes easily absorb any chemical they come in contact with, whether from accidental splashes, direct transfer of chemicals from a surface, or vapours.
- Ingestion (through the mouth) – Exposure through ingestion can occur in several different ways. It may occur indirectly when touching food with contaminated hands or directly through ingestion of food contaminated with hazardous dust, vapours or fumes. Eating, drinking and smoking in areas where toxic chemicals are used increases the risk of chemical exposure through ingestion.
- Injection (directly to the bloodstream) – Exposure through injection can occur when someone accidentally pricks or cuts themselves with a contaminated needle or sharp object. This is most common in hospitals in the form of needlestick injuries.
Harmful Effects Of Chemical Exposure
The symptoms and effects can vary widely, depending on the type of chemical and the extent of the exposure. What’s important to know is regardless of the route of entry, once a toxic chemical enters the body, it gets into the bloodstream and from there it is distributed throughout the body. This means the injuries are not limited to the site of the entry itself. Organs that are nowhere near the exposed area may also be affected.
The harmful effects may be temporary or permanent and they may be systemic, acute or chronic. Systemic injuries may include burns and corrosive injuries from direct dermal contact. Acute injuries may include nausea, headache, or dizziness from one-time accidental contact. Chronic injuries usually occur after repeated exposure to the toxic substance. In chronic injuries, the adverse health effects typically start manifesting long after the exposure occurred.
Safety Best Practices To Prevent Chemical Exposure
Putting proper preventive measures in place is crucial in any workplace where hazardous chemicals are being used or produced.
The list of safety measures to prevent chemical exposure is long but they cannot be overlooked. Ignoring any one of these can result in disastrous exposure-related injuries.
#1. A risk assessment of the workplace must be conducted and an appropriate safety protocol established. Every workplace is susceptible to a different set of risks. Carrying out a risk assessment is a prerequisite to being able to put the relevant safety measures in place.
#2. Ventilation must be designed to meet the needs of the specific work process and workplace. Toxic gases and vapours can build up quickly in closed spaces with inadequate ventilation. Under such circumstances, even a small leak, which would otherwise be harmless, can become dangerous.
#3. Proper housekeeping routines must be established. This should cover every aspect of working around hazardous chemicals, from storage, handling and transportation of the material itself to regular inspection and maintenance of equipment and machinery used at various stages.
#4. All workers must receive proper training in how to handle toxic materials safely. This must include training in using emergency equipment such as fire extinguishers, first-aid kits, and drench showers.
#5. All workers working directly with or around dangerous materials must be issued proper personal protective equipment relevant to that specific exposure. The exact type of personal protective equipment may vary from one workplace to another. In general, it includes self-contained breathing apparatus to prevent exposure by inhalation, safety goggles to prevent ophthalmic exposure, industrial lab gowns to prevent dermal exposure, and heavy-duty gloves to prevent exposure by injection.
#6. All containers must be properly marked, labelled, and inventoried. The risk of accidental exposure increases tremendously when containers are not labelled, especially when they are being handled by multiple people at different stages.
#7. In workplaces such as manufacturing plants where hazardous chemicals are used routinely, monitoring devices must be installed to measure air quality at all times.
#8. A first-aid kit must be kept in a place that’s easily accessible. This first-aid kit must be stocked with all medication and items necessary in case of accidental exposure to the type of chemicals prevalent in that specific workplace. The kit must be replenished after every use and inspected regularly to ensure that no items are past expiry.
#9. Emergency numbers must be printed and posted in areas where they are easily visible to all workers at all times. Looking for a phone number when there is an emergency could make the difference between life and death.
#10. Environmental protection measures must be established with special emphasis on disposing of corrosive chemicals with minimum impact on the environment.
While employers are legally responsible for ensuring that the workplace is free from inherent risks related to chemical exposure, all workers must share the responsibility of safeguarding their own health and safety. Two ways that workers can protect themselves are by reporting any safety lapses to management and by following safety protocols at all times.