Monday, May 2, 2011

Hazard Communication and Chemical Safety

The Hazard Communication Standards, also known as the ‘Right-to Know’ standards are in place to ensure that workers have access to the information they need to safely work with chemicals in the workplace. Prior to implementation of the Hazcom standards, workers in America did not always have complete information about the chemicals around them, and as a result, many got sick, and many died from exposure to hazardous substances on the job. OSHA’s 1910.1200 addresses this issue.
Exposure to chemicals in the workplace can have greatly varied effects, depending on several variables, including relative toxicity, concentration of the chemical, time in contact, and route of entry. Personal factors such as age, general health, nutrition, and previous exposure can all take a role. Effects of chemicals be acute or chronic. In acute exposure, the effects of a chemical are noted immediately after exposure. Consider flooding a room with ammonia gas: people in the room would notice immediately, and begin coughing, experiencing burning in the eyes, and other immediate effects. Chronic effects are long-term effects that are not noted until months or years after the exposure. Amphibole asbestos exposure, for example, would produce no immediate effects in the body, and it would only be after years that the effects would begin to show.
One of the key aspects of the program, then, is that employers must furnish information about potential chemical hazards to employees, and this is done in several important ways. The first one is assessment of the hazards. Employers must audit the workplace in order to note what chemicals are in use, and what types of protections are required for employees. Then, the employer must communicate the hazards and the control methods to employees in training classes held on an annual basis. There are many resources available to help employers evaluate their workplace and determine effective hazard controls; OSHA, chemical manufacturers, chemical labels, trade magazines, safety consultants, and material safety data sheets can all provide valuable insight.
Material safety data sheets (MSDS) are informational documents provided by the chemical manufacturer or importer that describe the chemical’s physical characteristics, fire/explosion data, and health effects, among other things. Employers must catalog an MSDS for all chemicals in the workplace, (with a few exceptions) and make the MSDS’s available to employees at all times. The MSDS book must also be reviewed annually to ensure that it remains current, and that all chemicals in the workplace have a corresponding sheet.
Chemical safety in the workplace is an important part of any overall safety program. The elements of Hazcom are easy to implement, and with proper practices and quality training, incidents involving chemicals can be lessened, and injuries and illnesses can be greatly reduced.