Contractors frequently work with a wide variety of chemicals to carry out their work. More often than not, these chemicals are hazardous to human health, and they can cause injury if handled incorrectly. In fact, in the United States alone, more than 50,000 fatalities are reported annually due to workplace exposure to hazardous chemicals. If you own a contractor company, it is your responsibility to make sure that your company abides by all chemical safety regulations, and that your employees are properly trained for handling hazardous chemicals.
If you are a contractor who primarily works with chemicals, then you will likely be asked by your hiring client to undergo qualification with either Avetta® or ISNetworld®. Certification for the chemical industry is a common requirement in both the US and Canada, though other countries may require certification as well.
Risks of Handling Hazardous Chemicals
The health risks posed by hazardous chemicals depend on a variety of factors. First, the degree of risk depends on the chemical itself. Second, the risk depends on how long and in what manner a person is exposed to a chemical. Lastly, the risk depends on whether a person is wearing any personal protective equipment (PPE) when exposed to a chemical.
Here are some important terms for assessing the risk posed by a chemical:
- Ceiling Limit: The maximum amount a worker can be exposed to a chemical.
- Short-Term Exposure Limit (STEL): The average exposure to a chemical to which a worker may be exposed during a short time period (typically 15 – 30 minutes).
- Time-Weighted Average (TWA): The acceptable average exposure to a chemical over a given period of time, typically 8-hours.
The OSHA Occupational Chemical Database is an important resource for learning about different chemicals and their corresponding safe exposure times.
Overexposure to hazardous chemicals, as well as improper use of PPE when handling hazardous chemicals, can pose a wide variety of short- and long-term side effects. For instance:
- PVC, or polyvinyl chloride, is commonly used to coat pipes and provide insulation for electrical wiring. If handled incorrectly, PVC can cause cancer, neurological damage, and reproductive damage.
- Formaldehyde is often found in polymers used in plywood and carpet manufacture, and it also exists in resins. This chemical is a carcinogen, and it is an irritant to the body’s mucous membranes.
- Silica commonly exists as dust, and it is a component of bricks, glass, and concrete. When inhaled, silica can cause chronic lung problems, lung cancer, and kidney cancer.
These are only three common examples, but the list of hazardous chemicals is virtually endless. Remember, you should always perform thorough research about a chemical before working with it. The detrimental effects of a chemical may not be obvious during exposure, and this is why it is so important to understand the side effects beforehand.
Safety Programs for Hazardous Chemicals
Hazardous chemicals pose such a significant threat to workers because their harm can remain undetected for years. As humans, we have a tendency to ignore safety precautions if we cannot instantly assess the severity of a risk. A nail gun seems more dangerous than a sheet of foam containing PVC, but in reality, we should be more wary of the silent killer: hazardous chemicals.
This is why it is critical for you to train your employees with thorough chemical safety programs. Safety programs for your company will be dependent upon the nature of your work, and the specific kinds of chemicals that exist within your workplace. However, here are some common programs to consider:
- Respirator Use
- Hazardous Communication (labels, safety data sheets, etc.)
- Hazardous Storage
Do I Need New Chemical Safety Programs?
If you haven’t updated your safety programs in the past couple of years, you may want to consider doing so. OSHA frequently enhances their safety regulations for the handling of different chemicals, as new information and studies help us better understand the nature of the materials we work with.
Additionally, as your company grows and takes on new projects, you will naturally encounter new hazardous materials. It is so important for you to know the risks of what you are working with, and to create appropriate safety programs to train your employees before they encounter these chemicals in the workplace.
Remember: the dangers posed by hazardous chemicals won’t be obvious. It’s easy to re-evaluate your safety programs after an accident, such as a vehicle crash or electrical fire. However, hazardous chemicals can have devastating after-effects that don’t manifest until years after an employee walks off the job site. As an employer, it is up to you to be aware of these risks and stay on top of your safety programs to protect the people who work for you.
Warning Signs to Change Your Safety Practices
If you have failed the process of compliance certification, check your gap report to see if your safety programs affected your grade. If you lost points in this area, then you are failing to meet either national or client-specific safety standards. Most companies do not formally write their safety programs before applying for certification, but they should. Even if your company has a decent track record, documenting your safety programs ensures that all employees are on the same page, and it helps you communicate your on-site practices to potential clients.
If you have passed certification, you may still want to think about improving your safety programs after an employee injury. To prevent future problems, you should look at every incident as something that could have been prevented with better safety programs. It is so easy for one incident to become a pattern if you don’t pay close attention. Make sure you keep detailed records of OSHA-recordable incidents and routinely schedule employee training so that everyone remembers to work with safety at the front of their minds.