What is Chemical Protection?
Simply put, chemical protection is an umbrella term that relates to each of the methods which companies may opt for to secure their business in the event of employee contact with dangerous substances.
These can include anything from Personal Protective Equipment (PPE, a particularly common point of discussion over the course of the pandemic), safety showers, eye washes, as well as a set of practices and regulations designed to ensure that anyone working on site remains safe and secure. Many businesses will have a limited risk of said exposure, yet for others the danger may be more acute than one might otherwise think.
The majority of workplaces – even offices – will feature at least one chemical that could potentially be hazardous given the requisite set of circumstances. These can range from anything as mundane as bleach or toilet cleaner to the hydrofluorocarbons found in air conditioners and refrigerators. To the latter, new bans1 are being issued to coincide with the pre-existing ban on so-called ‘F gases’ (fluorinated gases) for environmental as well as occupational health reasons, and are due to come into effect in 2022.
Other types of workplaces, particularly those in heavy industries such as waste and recycling, construction or manufacturing will have a far greater likelihood of exposure to hazardous chemicals. However, the sheer fact that it’s also possible to encounter harmful substances even in an office should serve as something of a warning to those willing to overlook the potential dangers.
What are the Dangers?
Each substance comes with its own attendant set of risks. As such, in order to make any workplace as safe as possible it’s imperative to follow instructions, procedures, training and supervision (more on which later); however, there are a number of situations where hazards remain despite the very best engineering controls and safe systems of work. Two particular forms of contact exposure are of concern when dealing with chemicals – breathing in contaminated air and direct contact with the skin.
Risks of Inhalation
It is imperative to consider the effect that chemical inhalation can have on the body, as exposure to it is relatively common. Hazardous substances can be present in the air either in the form of a solid or liquid, and it’s entirely possible that they exist in more than one form at a time, such as when using spray paints. Some of the key substances (and where you are likely to find them) that can cause damage through inhalation are:
Each of these chemicals carries its own set of risks. These include, but are not limited to, the following:
- Damage or burning in the lungs, nasal passages, pharynx, trachea and bronchi
- Coughing, retching, shortness of breath and blood in the sputum (hemoptysis)
- Lung cancer
- Chronic bronchitis
- Decreased oxygen resulting in headaches and nausea
- Inflammation of the airways (bronchiolitis)
- Fluid accumulation in the lungs (pulmonary edema)
- Silo Filler’s disease
- Hypersensitivity Pneumonitis
Risks of Skin Contact
Skin overexposure can occur through spillages, chemical splashes, gradual absorption, direct handling of contaminated workplaces/surfaces, deposits in the air (e.g. cement dust) and through frequent hand washing/wet work. Much like inhalation, skin contact is somewhat common given the requisite working conditions. Some of the key substances that one may be likely to encounter in the workplace are:
Skin contact with the above chemicals (as well as others) once again comes with an intendent set of complications. The two main ways that exposure though skin contact can affect an individual are through irritants and sensitisers.
A skin irritant is any substance which is capable of causing cell damage if applied to the skin for sufficient time and concentration. Strong irritants can provoke clear skin damage or acute irritant contact dermatitis or even chemical burns after a single contact. Weaker irritants will necessitate multiple exposures; however, they are not to be taken lightly as they will eventually result in chronic irritant contact dermatitis.
Sensitisers are substances capable of rousing an allergic contact dermatitis response, which may closely resemble that of irritant contact dermatitis, but it operates on a different underlying mechanism. In industry, this type of damage can result after the initial exposure, however, it is generally induced after months of repeat contact.
Non-Infective Hazardous Agents
However, skin problems are not limited to irritants and sensitisers; a minority of cases form inflammations or ulcers, such as hives, oil acne and chloracne, or chrome ulcers and cement burns. Others still are degenerative like vinyl chloride monomer, while certain chemicals are even capable of reducing skin pigmentation (alkyl phenols, alkyl catechols and hydroquinones). In extreme cases, repeated exposure to coal tar products and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons in mineral oils (that have not been solvent refined or severely hydrotreated) can eventually result in skin cancer.
In addition to the above forms of contact, a rigorous chemical protection policy will also include measures against potential fires and explosions, limits on environmental effects as well as best storage practices and control procedures.
Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)
To prevent or delay both major types of overexposure is the primary role of PPE; a last layer of protection when all else has been accounted for. It’s a common cause of complaint, with skin problems and diseases being the most widespread noninjury health issue in the US according to the CDC2. They estimate that the costs of work-related skin problems exceed $1 billion per year.
The key categories of personal protective equipment are aligned to the areas most at risk. These include the eyes, head and neck, ears, hands and arms, feet and legs, and lungs. All-over body cover such as aprons, boiler suits, overalls and chemical suits (often referred to as hazmat suits) remain crucial for many jobs. Within these risk areas there are certain types of covering that will be essential in making sure that individuals stay safe when dealing with potentially harmful chemicals.
The most important areas for the eyes are forms of cover that still allow individuals to accurately assess their surroundings, namely safety glasses/goggles, face screens/shields and visors. Whilst it may seem as though visors and face screens are not as useful in the protection from chemicals, this is far from being the case: for instance, welders will often find themselves operating with products that have already been in contact with noxious substances, and can inadvertently set off a potentially dangerous reaction or create toxic dust that could harm the welder if not properly covered.
Head and Neck/Ear Protection
Scarves and neck covers can be a useful addition when welding for this exact reason. In other instances, neck protection can be beneficial if, for example, the workplace features a significant risk of chemicals dripping from above. Other forms of head protection such as safety helmets are particularly useful when dealing with toxic substances but will not be a sufficient measure alone. It’s always recommended to combine them with other forms of protection if the individual feels themselves at risk, such as ear coverings.
Hand and Arm Protection
Similarly, hand and arm protection can be an absolute necessity depending on the place of work. Naturally, an individuals’ hands are far likelier to be in the close vicinity of hazards, and therefore it is always important to take as many precautions as possible. Just some of the dangers one can encounter that can cause or exacerbate chemical damage include cuts, punctures, exposure to radiation, prolonged immersion in water, and of course, direct contact with chemicals themselves often resulting in burns, abrasion or absorption into the bloodstream. The most common forms of hard/arm protection are gloves (either cuffed or otherwise), gauntlets and padded sleeves.
Do note, however, that once again a robust pair of gloves is not the solution to every problem. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) guidelines3 are very clear that each glove will have a different design, material and thickness and how they deal with chemicals will vary correspondingly. Manufacturers tend to use three metrics to measure the durability of their gloves: breakthrough time, permeation rate and degradation. The former is a measure of how long it takes for a chemical to permeate the gloves and reach the insides to ascertain the effectiveness of the gloves. Permeation rate is slightly different in that it records how much of the chemical will get through the glove – the lower the rate, the better, unlike breakthrough rate. Degradation, meanwhile, is a measure of how easily or otherwise the glove material deteriorates through contact with a named substance. This means the degree to which the glove material becomes harder, softer or swells, cracks, and tears.
An important thing to note is that both breakthrough and permeation can be difficult to detect, as very often the harmful substance will take the form of a vapour. This can then have unforeseen knock-on effects and may result in greater exposure than one otherwise might’ve thought, precisely because they were wearing protection. In other words, a person might not notice the chemical due to them wearing gloves in the first place, which inadvertently causes prolonged exposure. Furthermore, it’s possible that by wearing gloves for an extended period of time hands become sweaty and hot, which can also lead to skin problems.
However, there are ways around both of these predicaments. A separate cotton inner glove can be used to prevent excess heat and moisture, while a well-graded glove durability can be a real game-changer in terms of protection. The key thing, as ever, is to remain vigilant in high-risk environments.
Feet and Leg Protection
Just as with hands and arms, chemical splash against the feet and legs can be an all-too-common occurrence. If anything, feet and leg damage is more likely as individuals tend to pay less attention to what’s going on below them than they do with their hands! Aside from the risk of hazardous materials, slips, cuts, punctures and heavy objects/machinery falling on feet account for an added layer of risk that is particularly prevalent in certain industries such as construction. For these reasons and more, it is highly recommended to wear protective footwear such as safety boots, shoes with protective toecaps, and especially those with chemical-resistant soles.
Lung and Breathing Protection
The other crucial area of chemical protection aside from skin/contact risk management is that of breathing protection. Respiratory protective equipment (RPE) comes in several forms, from the familiar facemask (both tight and loose-fitting) to respirators, power-assisted respirators and breathing apparatuses (BA) with an independent supply of breathable air. BAs are used in areas with an extremely high risk of chemical infection, such as laboratory conditions and others designated under the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations (COSHH) legislation. RPE and BA systems are designed to ensure that the exposure received to harmful substances is minimised, and may be mandatory depending on company policy and individual working conditions. These may include situations wherein an individual is handling a dusty powder, a product containing volatile solvents such as tetrachloroethylene or welding stainless steel. Stainless steel may seem low risk at first glance but actually uses a number of toxic elements and compounds in its manufacture, including chromium and nickel – both of which carry carcinogenic properties in their dust.
“overexposure will not be wholly alleviated by use of a mask or gloves, although it may limit the damage”
It’s important to consider whether or not the RPE used is what the HSE considers to be both adequate and suitable. Adequate refers to the degree to which the covering reduces the chemical exposure; what might be useful for one chemical will not be sufficient for another. Suitable, on the other hand, means whether or not the RPE is correct for the wearer themselves as well as the task and wider environment. If the covering impairs the user to the point whereby other risks are more likely to occur, then it would be considered unsuitable. To ensure that PPE is fully compliant, products must adhere to the strictures laid out in the PPE Regulation 2016/425.
One should always be aware that these types of personal protective equipment are a necessary condition to keeping safe, but not a sufficient one: sudden overexposure will not be wholly alleviated by use of a mask or gloves, although it may limit the damage. A more reactive (rather than preventative) measure that one can take in the case of an emergency is that of a safety shower or eyewash station.
Safety Showers and Eyewash Stations
A safety shower is an emergency measure designed to quickly and effectively remove contaminants from the body and skin. In the majority of cases, they are placed strategically at points of easy access to guarantee swift deployment. They play a vital role in dangerous situations and are a key component in a robust and effective chemical protection strategy.
A huge variety of devices are available on the market and can include anything from specialised insulated tanks to portable decontamination showers. Some of the key types of safety shower and eyewash station are as follows:
Generic Safety Shower
A unit designed to cleanse an individual’s head and body after interaction with hazardous chemicals. Large volumes of pressurised tepid water are used and those affected may be required to take off their clothing beforehand. Due to the high water pressure, these are unsuitable for flushing out an individual’s eyes.
Resembling a bowl or sink, eyewash stations tend to feature two lightly pressured nozzles that point upwards from the basin to effectively cleanse eyes without the risk of further damage.
An (often portable) piece of equipment that is able to spray water at variable pressures directly onto an affected area. A key advantage of a drench hose is that it can be carried to an individual that may not have immediate access to an eyewash station.
A combination unit is a mixture of the above facilities and is useful in situations like a laboratory where noxious chemicals with different properties are used in conjunction with one another.
A supplementary device to the eyewash station, an eyewash bottle (also sometimes referred to as a personal eyewash unit) is designed to be a portable, immediate use option for when an individual may require assistance as soon as possible. It should be taken into account, however, that an eyewash bottle is categorically not an alternative to a full eyewash station.
Policy, Procedures and Training
While the two aforementioned methods (adequate PPE and safety showers/eyewash stations) encompass both a preventative and a reactive approach, ultimately the most important way of ensuring the safety of people in the workplace is crafting a robust and far-reaching company policy and adhering to the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations 20024 and the recommendations set forth by the Health & Safety Executive.
In terms of company policy, there are a number of independent associations that can help businesses ensure that they remain compliant with the aforementioned regulations as well as tailor it to their individual set of circumstances. These range from insurance companies to solicitors to templates laid out by the HSE itself.
In addition, it is essential that both management and staff alike undertake sufficient training. All too often accidents occur through a lack of preparation, or a simple lack of awareness of the risks. Thankfully, there are a great deal of resources both online and elsewhere to help alleviate such concerns. For instance, an independent COSHH assessment can be an excellent way to gain the requisite knowledge needed to ensure the safety of others, and are offered by a multitude of organisations throughout the country. Similarly, the HSE itself offers a number of official courses designed to minimise risk.
Case Study: Photographic Chemicals
The following story highlights the importance of the above factors:
“Stuart, Derek and Barry worked as engineers for an international photographic company. They were all exposed to hazardous chemicals over a four-year period. This caused them to develop the disease ‘allergic contact dermatitis’.
Stuart suffered for years from his hands blistering, cracking, splitting and weeping due to the allergic dermatitis. Barry’s fingers and hands became so badly swollen and blistered that he could not do up his shirt buttons without his fingers splitting open.
Barry was eventually diagnosed with occupational dermatitis, and his doctor notified his employer.
The company was prosecuted for health and safety offences, especially the company’s management and control of exposure to chemicals. Since the prosecution the company has completely redrafted its risk assessments with the help of experts.
Barry has since been recruited as an internal national trainer and health and safety officer for the company. He now shares his story and experiences with colleagues in the hope that they will never suffer the way he has.
He knows better than anyone what should and shouldn’t be done, so his knowledge and personal experiences will help him to advise and support his work colleagues and raise their awareness of work-related contact dermatitis.”
Ultimately it is each individual aspect which when combined safeguards businesses against the dangers of chemicals. As it stands, their usage shows no signs of abating; potentially hazardous chemicals are arguably more widespread now than ever before. The positive news, however, is that the knowledge surrounding their use and misuse is better than at any point in history. The measures one can take to counteract (or at the very least alleviate) their usage are similarly excellent as a result.