Life in the 21st century exposes humans to more toxic chemicals than any generation before us. From the food that we eat, the air we breathe, all the way to the beauty products we use so often, chemicals are everywhere around us. Exposure has become something which is either blindly accepted or not fully understood by most.
This has affected the working environments in which we spend a large amount of our lives, with employers seldom implementing the required control measures to sufficiently protect employees from workplace exposure to hazardous chemical substances. To address this aspect, we need to first understand what hazardous chemical substances are. Chemical substance means any toxic, harmful, corrosive, irritant or asphyxiate substance, or a mixture of substances for which an occupational exposure limit is prescribed, or an occupational exposure limit is not prescribed, but which creates a hazard to health.” With this definition we can then define most chemicals as hazardous chemical substances due the fact that most chemicals can be hazardous to health if not used correctly.
Exposure to chemicals in the workplace can result in acute or long term detrimental health effects not to mention devastating consequences for our environment. The risk that this places on employers does vary depending on industry and the chemicals which are used, however, we should not fool ourselves into thinking that workplace chemical accidents are isolated to construction and engineering. In Utah, western United States, Jan Harding was eating at a local restaurant with her husband, Jim, on 10 August 2014 when she sipped her tea and started gagging and coughing. An employee mistook degreaser – made of sodium hydroxide (Lye) for sugar, mixing it into the tea which caused severe chemical burns to Harding’s throat and mouth almost resulting in her death. A simple lack of control which is observed all too often and is a factor of many accidents involving HCS exposure, being unlabeled chemical containers, can lead to a potential death of employees or visitors to our workplaces.
To control this, the Hazardous Chemical Substances Regulations, 1995, provides guidelines for employers to reduce the risk of workplace exposure to HCS. The foundation of controlling exposure to HCS is the assessment of potential exposure which is an area which seldom receives the attention it deserves. During the assessment the following important information is gathered –
The HCS to which an employee may be exposed;
The effects the HCS can have on an employee;
Where the HCS can be present and in what physical form it is likely to be;
The route of intake by which and the extent to which an employee can be exposed; and
The nature of the work, process and any reasonable deterioration in, or failure of any control measures.
By failing to conduct a suitable and sufficient assessment of potential exposure, employers lose the opportunity in identifying the essential information required in ensuring the health and safety of their employees and to meet the requirements of the regulation. These are –
To provide information and training for employees on HCS;
Medical surveillance of employees exposed (if applicable);M
Ensuring easy access to material safety data sheets;
Provision of the required personal protective equipment for the HCS in use, safe storage and labeling of HCS containers as well as disposal procedures to name a few.
If we consider the level of compliance to occupational health and safety legislation in South Africa, which is on average low, as well as the number of work-related fatalities which occur, employers have a long way to go in ensuring the safety and health of their employees. Controlling the hazardous chemical substances in our workplaces is one aspect within health and safety compliance and a leap in the right direction in ensuring a safe and healthy workplace for all.
In LabourNet, we assist companies with Health & Safety management because we believe –
Everyone goes home healthy and safe
…And that includes, employees, customers, and the general public.
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