It’s important to understand the dangers presented by chemicals and other hazardous substances before a worker begins handling them. However, it can be challenging to ensure that everyone is protected all of the time – particularly when workers may take the view that they will worry about the long-term effects of exposure later.
So, what information must safety managers and their teams have before using a hazardous substance?
Details of the hazards presented by the chemical(s) in use
Before using hazardous substances or chemicals, safety managers must conduct a thorough risk assessment in relation to their use, as well as the implications arising from contamination. Such a process is crucial because every substance or chemical acts and reacts differently, depending on the environment.
For example, in a hot environment (and depending on the boiling point of the chemical which might be considerably lower than for water), some chemicals may evaporate as vapour. Such vapour can be readily breathed in, or might penetrate inside a non-gas tight suit through zip closures or connections between different PPE, and can be as harmful as the liquid chemical.
Similarly, if operators are working in environments where fine dust substances such as respirable crystalline silica or asbestos are present – the particles from each are fine enough to be inhaled and eventually reach the lungs. Long-term exposure can potentially cause silicosis and lung cancer.
Consideration also needs to be given to the fact that even if dust presents only a respiratory hazard, without suitable protective clothing it may become lodged in the operator’s clothing or hair, thus risking contamination of other areas of the facility, inhaling it later and worse still, taking it home with them.
In addition to the above, safety managers must evaluate whether or not exposure to these chemicals has immediate effects, long-term effects, or both. Some chemicals will cause immediate harm, such as acids and irritants that cause burning or an allergic reaction, whereas others can be readily absorbed through the skin and show no trace of harm or damage, leading the operator to believe they are ‘fine’. Even after Permitted Exposure Levels (PEL’s) have been exceeded the user may be unaware of the contamination – and may remain so until the health consequences become apparent months – or even years – later.
There are also hydrophilic chemical risks which need to be addressed. These substances will absorb moisture, water and oil, so if they come into contact with skin will absorb its natural protective oils, leaving it dehydrated and more vulnerable to other contaminants in the environment.
An understanding of the environment and chemical exposure levels
Knowing just how long an operator can safely be within a contaminated environment before possible permeated chemical can reach unsafe levels is key.
Having this kind of information will ensure that operators don’t exceed the safe exposure limits when they are using certain chemicals, know when to exit the environment and change suits, and most importantly, feel safe.
Whilst this sounds relatively simple, getting this kind of information in real-time is often difficult due to a lack of analytics.
Safety managers need to be able to make data-driven decisions when it comes to chemicals in the environment, PELs and the protection of operators on the ground in real-time and under real-world conditions. They need detailed information at the point of need, not weeks later.
Tools like PermaSURE®, provide such information – and with granularity.
PermaSURE® calculates safe working times based on the chemical being worked, the rate of permeation and permeated volumes over time. PermaSURE® does more than just inform users of permeation rate – it also uses area and duration of contamination, the environmental and suit temperature (which affects permeation rate) and the toxicity rate of the chemical to assess how long a suit can be safely used before the volume permeated reaches a level that might cause harm. This is very different – and far more effective in assessing how long a suit can be safely worn – than basic permeation test data obtained in a lab. Without PermaSURE® safety managers have very little to tell them if a suit will actually protect against a chemical – and for how long.
PermaSURE can be used online or as a smartphone app, allowing safety managers to bring up detailed information on chemical permeation rates and exposure times, which will not only help them keep employees safe, but also help them to assess their current PPE and rectify it accordingly.
It is, in essence, the go-to for safety managers conducting risk analysis and trying to understand the nature of the chemicals in use and just how quickly they can permeate in the current operational environment.
Information on the chemicals being used
Safety managers should always refer to the Safety Data Sheet (SDS) that comes with the chemical. The SDS will contain information on the chemical that will help users to make informed risk assessments. The SDS will include:
- The hazards the chemical presents (if it’s a short or long-term hazard),
- Information on how to store and handle it
- What to do in an emergency or if someone (or something) is contaminated
- The characteristics of the chemical
- Stability, reactivity and the toxicological information of the chemical
- First aid measures
- Exposure controls/personal protection
Permasure® also provides instant basic hazard data on over 4000 chemicals in its database, as well as a direct link to each chemicals safety data sheet on the CDC website.
Employee safety and advocacy
Finally, before using any kind of hazardous substance, safety managers need to ensure that operators feel protected.
If employee advocacy is low in the workforce then safety managers will struggle against the existing workplace culture to enforce safety procedures or new tools.
First and foremost, safety managers need to involve operators in the risk analysis process – after all, who better to ask than those who routinely expose themselves to the chemicals and substances in use? The operators will have a better idea of just how hazardous the environment is and be able to provide comprehensive feedback.
Also, safety managers need to have policies in place that allow operators to speak up if they see someone neglecting procedures and putting colleagues at risk as a result.
The points outlined in this blog should show safety managers what information they need before using a hazardous substance. With this information, safety managers can start to develop a more sophisticated and effective safety programme, one which utilises data – both feedback from operators and the PermaSURE® solution – to better equip operators for the environment and ensure they are protected.
To discover more about how to improve chemical safety in your workplace, click here to download our eBook.
N.B. PermaSURE®, is a registered trademark of Industrial Textiles & Plastics ltd, Easingwold, UK.