How to protect yourself from chemical exposure in the workplace
When people think of occupations that put workers at risk of chemical exposure, industries like manufacturing, construction and agriculture probably come to mind. But the truth is, many workers in the U.S across a wide range of industries are exposed to a variety of chemicals in the workplace every day, including:
- Health care workers
- Sanitation workers
- Food service workers
- Pilots and flight attendants
While the type of chemical exposure varies widely depending on the industry, some of the most common chemicals in the workplace include:
- Carbon monoxide
- Petroleum gas and diesel fuels
- Welding fumes
- Uranium and other radioactive substances
- Pesticides, herbicides and insecticides
- Detergents and cleaning products
- Electronic waste
Depending on the chemical toxicity, length of exposure (which can range from mere minutes to years in some cases), and the quality of the protective gear in use, chemicals can pose a significant risk to a worker’s short- and long-term health.
Unfortunately, some of the harmful effects of working with chemicals often aren’t visible until long after exposure. That’s why it’s vital to be aware of the chemicals in your workplace and understand how to handle them safely.
Here are some of our top tips for protecting yourself while working with toxic chemicals.
Read the manufacturer’s label and Safety Data Sheet
Every chemical an employee is exposed to in the workplace should have a manufacturer’s label and a corresponding Safety Data Sheet (SDS). These documents will identify the chemical and its potential hazards and provide information about proper handling, transport, storage and disposal, as well as any necessary personal protective equipment (PPE) that should be used when working with the chemical.
All employees should have access to the SDSs in their workplace either electronically or through a hardcopy, so make sure you take the time to familiarize yourself with the chemicals in your workplace and read the corresponding information to ensure you know which precautions to take.
Use appropriate PPE
Whenever you’re working with toxic chemicals, always wear the appropriate personal protective equipment identified on the manufacturer’s label or SDS. This may include items such as:
- Safety goggles and shoes
- Hard hats
- Respirators and masks
- Coveralls, vests or bodysuits
This gear is critical for your safety when working with toxic chemicals. Make sure you’re aware of the required equipment for the specific chemicals you’re working with, and ensure that all equipment fits comfortably yet snuggly, so you’ll be fully protected.
Additionally, whenever possible, try to work in an area that’s well-ventilated. This will further help prevent any potential chemical fumes from being inhaled.
Perform regular equipment and container safety checks
Before using any equipment that involves chemicals, inspect it to make sure it’s clean, free of cracks or corrosion, and in proper working order. Don’t use any equipment that shows signs of damage until it’s repaired, and be sure to report any defects or leaks to your supervisor immediately.
Know how to respond to spills
Even when safety protocols are followed, accidents and spills involving chemicals can still happen. Make sure you understand the procedures that should be followed in case of a chemical spill so you can take the appropriate steps to keep you and your co-workers safe.
Clean up any spill immediately using the equipment designated on the manufacturer’s label or SDS. If you’re unable or don’t know how to clean up the spill yourself, alert your supervisor as soon as possible. Depending on the size of the spill and the chemical involved, evacuation may be necessary.
Be aware of the signs of exposure
When working with toxic chemicals, be on the lookout for any signs or symptoms that you might experience. Some common signs of toxic chemical exposure may include:
- Headaches. One of the most common symptoms of exposure to toxic chemicals is headaches, which may persist even after you’ve stopped working with the chemical.
- Nausea. Another sign of exposure to a toxic chemical is nausea, often accompanied by vomiting and diarrhea.
- Fatigue. Exhaustion and extreme fatigue are common symptoms of exposure to toxic chemicals.
- Skin rashes. Many toxic chemicals can cause rashes on the skin, which may appear as small red bumps, large red blotches, or sores that itch.
- Increased blood pressure. Exposure to certain chemicals can increase blood pressure, which can be especially dangerous for people with certain underlying medical conditions.
- Oral symptoms. Exposure to toxic chemicals can cause symptoms in the mouth, such as oral pain, inflammation and swelling.
- Hemolytic anemia. Certain chemicals can cause severe and potentially irreversible anemia, which can be life-threatening.
If you’re working with toxic chemicals and you experience any of these symptoms, you should seek medical help immediately to determine a cause and get the necessary treatment.
When to consult a Georgia workers’ compensation attorney
Exposure to toxic chemicals in the workplace can lead to life-long complications and serious health issues. In some cases, it can even lead to severe disabilities or death. If you’ve been exposed to toxic chemicals at work that have made you sick and are preventing you from working, you’re entitled to workers’ compensation benefits.
In Georgia, workers’ compensation is a no-fault system, which means you don’t have to prove that your employer was at fault in order to receive compensation. So even if you think the accident or exposure was partly your fault, workers’ compensation benefits are still available.