For most employer’s chemical protection doesn’t really come into consideration, rightly or wrongly many employers assume that chemical accidents aren’t going to be a factor for them but this is not always the case.

Last year saw a shift in the public’s awareness of Personal Protective Equipment or PPE and of the effectiveness it has in keeping us safe from threats that we cannot see. Now with PPE being more readily available is it time we start to wear it more when dealing with everyday chemicals and how effective is it against chemical hazards.

Common workplace chemicals

Most workplaces have at least one type of chemical substance on-site,
from cleaning products to fire extinguishers in offices to fuels and more harmful acids in some larger industrial settings, chemicals are used in everyday life.

Now, most of the people who work in offices will not come into contact with chemicals but should be aware that they are there. As we are currently in the midst of a global pandemic, cleaning has become something we are all more aware of, which puts us in contact with chemicals. Whilst these substances are made to, in isolation, cause no immediate harm to us, they are ultimately harmful if not used correctly.
Some of the most common chemicals that we deal with on a day-to-day basis are things like bleach, glues, petroleum-based fuels, and chlorine, and whilst many of these aren’t harmful to us in general, if used incorrectly they can cause harm.

It is always worth being aware of what chemicals are around us and how best to avoid any mishaps with them. There have been a number of cases where exposure to chemicals has led to long term ill health and in some cases death, we will cover off some of these later in the piece. Industries that put you at higher risk Like most things in life, certain things put you at higher risk than others and it is no different with jobs and workplaces. I mean you are more likely to come into contact with chemicals at a recycling plant than a retail space.

“in the midst of a global pandemic, cleaning has become something we are all more aware of, which puts us in contact with chemicals”

The most likely industries you will work in that put you at a greater exposure rate are as follows.

Waste and recycling

Chemicals are used to treat the waste before it can be recycled and there are also elements of the recycling process that require the use of chemicals. There are also plants that deal with chemical recycling and this could be anything from making the chemical less harmful or separating polymers back to monomers.

Mining

An inherently risky industry due to a number of factors, from machinery to human error! Chemicals are definitely one of the more risky and hazardous things in the mining trade, with a number of the chemicals used being lethal to humans. One of the more toxic chemicals used in mining is Cyanide, which is lethal to humans if consumed.

Agriculture

Whilst you may not initially think of agriculture as a hugely risky industry, it is one that means workers will come in to contact with a number of hazardous chemicals, machinery, and even animals. The fertilisers used in farming and agriculture can prove deadly if ingested or can cause lasting issues if workers are exposed to them without proper protective equipment.

Construction

Construction is one of the deadliest professions with a number of hazards workers need to be aware of. The first thing you think of is the heavy machinery that is used, then there are also the various heights people are working at, so a fall or falling object can cause some real damage if not correctly protected against. There are also a number of different chemicals that workers can come in to contact with, be that on new materials or when removing older materials from buildings. Fibrous materials like Asbestos have cause thousands of deaths worldwide from its use in the building trade and there are also fire-retardant chemicals present on site, and if used incorrectly can cause injury.

Manufacturing

Much like construction machinery is very much the main threat to workers, with most manufacturing accidents being due to the machinery but depending on what manufacturing plant you’re in you may also come into contact with a number of chemicals. It is vital that all workers have protective equipment to avoid any long-lasting injuries.

Causes of chemical accidents

Accidents happen, that is just part of life but by being prepared for these accidents and trying to minimise the overall risk are key in the workplace. When it comes to chemical accidents and chemical protection there are a few standout causes of accidents and injuries, with these reasons often overlapping to compound the accident.

Equipment failure

This is one of the main causes of chemical accidents. This can be down to incorrect equipment being used, for example, some chemicals are corrosive to certain materials and if used for storage containers may de-stabilise the container and cause a spill. Other examples of equipment failure are piping issues, be that leaking or fully rupturing, process vessel malfunctions, and heat transfer equipment not performing correctly. A study in the Process Safety and Environmental Protection found that 78% of chemical-based equipment accidents were due to design flaws and/or human error.

“there are a few standouts causes of chemical accidents and injuries, with these reasons often overlapping to compound the accident”

Operator error/human error

What you will find is that a number of accidents are caused by people. Human error is something that is going to happen whenever people are in contact with hazards, there is no sure-fire way to remove these errors. Most of the operator errors in chemical accidents are caused by people not being fully trained when in contact with the chemicals and not being fully aware of the dangers and best way to handle the chemical.

Poor training or testing

One of the main causes of chemical accidents is what happens before chemicals are even added to the equation. One of the most important aspects of chemical safety is the training and testing that happens before anyone or any chemicals are introduced. There have been a number of accidents involving chemicals, where the lack of testing or training has been found as a cause during the investigations, this is very relevant in larger scale accidents and incidents. Regular testing and training are vital to regularly assess any avoidable issues.

Warnings ignored

This could be construed as part of human error but is a separate issue, as it is not someone making a mistake, it is related to people seeing but ignoring warnings. This could be something as simple as not wearing the correct safety equipment, from entering a no-go zone and disaster striking.

Preventing chemical exposure

Chemical accidents can range from small scale to large, with individuals affected in some cases but there have also been cases where thousands of people have been impacted by a chemical accident. There are however a number of ways you can protect yourself and your workforce by preventing the accident itself or the steps taken to minimise the individual impact from an accident occurring. We have pulled together some of the most effective ways to firstly avoid accidents from happening and secondly protecting workers in the case of an accident happening.

Destructive testing – One way of testing a part or material is to put it through what is called Destructive Testing or Destructive Physical Analysis, which will determine how much stress the object can take before it breaks. This method of testing can be expensive as it requires the destruction of the material or object, so is generally used for mass-produced objects as it can be expensive to make something only for it to be destroyed. This style of testing is becoming more prevalent in construction for buildings situated in areas that are prone to natural disasters. What you will find from this form of testing is the ultimate breaking point of an object, so if used in the construction of a vessel that will hold chemicals or transport chemicals under pressure, you will know what levels of stress it can withstand.

Non-destructive testing – As you may have guessed, non-destructive testing, or NDT, are a group of testing methods that are non destructive. These are used more in construction and manufacturing as these can detect un-seen flaws in machinery or structures. There are a number of different methods for NDT, with dye penetration used to identify areas of leakage in cast, welded, or forged materials of the construction, ultrasonic testing which uses ultrasonic waves to measure the material thickness and detect flaws, and radiographic testing which is used to look at internal flaws but using x-rays which are then digitised and send to your computer. This method is commonly used in larger construction projects and allows you to test materials and objects without breaking them, making it a more viable option than destructive stress testing and can be carried out periodically to maintain safety in a workplace.

Risk assessments – A sure-fire way of minimising the risk posed by chemicals in the workplace is to have done a thorough risk assessment and continue to do them annually, at least. By doing a risk assessment you can identify areas where there is a risk posed by chemicals and put measures in place to minimise this. Another way that risk assessments help prevent accidents and injury is by highlighting areas where higher levels of PPE should be worn, which will go a long way to preventing chemical accidents.

On top of a risk assessment, you should also have procedures in place for dealing with chemicals, be that only certain people are able to access certain areas or minimising the number of people in the area when processes with chemicals are happening.

Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) – PPE is something that has been in the national spotlight over the COVID pandemic, with an emphasis being made on the availability of it to the public and medical staff but it is also vitally important in the prevention of chemical exposure accidents. When it comes to PPE there are four key elements of protection that PPE offers, respiratory, eye and face, skin, and noise, with certain equipment offering just one form of protection and others covering multiple forms. As you can imagine in the chemical world the first three are often
seen but you will also need noise protection in certain cases. PPE is split into four categories, based on the level of protection given ranging from A being the highest and D being the lowest. Identifying the different levels of PPE that you will need for your workforce is something that can be determined in the risk assessments, but making sure that you have actually provided the correct PPE is vital. It is also imperative that your workers are aware of the importance of PPE and how to effectively wear the equipment. This will, in turn, prevent any chemical exposure accidents that cause injury.

Importance of effective protection

Chemicals are dangerous – there is no other way around it – but they are also a necessity in a number of industries, so it is very important that workplaces have effective chemical protection. The importance of having chemical protection is that it will protect your workers, making them more effective in their work and confident in their workplace. Chemical protection is also vital for a business to be able to operate and conduct its everyday activities.

In 2019-20 the Health & Safety Executive reported that there were only two deaths from harmful substance exposure out of a total of 111 workplace deaths in Great Britain. There were just 926 reported injuries from exposure or contact with harmful substances out of 65,427 reported
workplace injuries, which is just over 1.4% of all injuries recorded. If you compare this with the main causes of injuries, for example, falls from height which accounted for 29 fatalities which is 25%, yet only 8% of no fatal injuries, shows that there is effective chemical protection being used in those industries that use chemicals to avoid accidents and injuries.

There are also two standout reasons why it is so important to have chemical protection are that often harmful chemical by-products can be invisible to humans and odourless, meaning that it can be impossible for humans to detect the chemical threat without specialist equipment and secondly, chemical accidents have been recorded as some of the most devastating, both in terms of lives lost and monetary costs in human history. There are examples, like the Bhopal disaster in India, where a gas leak from a pesticide plant led to over 500,000 people being exposed to methyl isocyanate and a total of 3,787 people dying. The single biggest manmade disaster is also chemical-related and that is the Chernobyl Nuclear disaster, where roughly 16,000 people have died as a result of the reactor rupture. In these examples, it wasn’t just the workforce that was affected but also the surrounding areas, showing the impact a chemical disaster could have long term, with the Chernobyl clean-up operation will not finish until 2065.

“chemicals are dangerous, there is no other way around it but they are also a necessity in a number of industries”

These were both accidents that could have been avoided through a number of the methods discussed earlier and it’s figures like this that show the importance of having chemical protection methods implemented in the workplace, no matter what size the operation. The overall impact of chemical accidents is in truth minor each year but there are cases involving chemicals that cause widespread devastation that come about due to the basic rules of chemical protection not being followed, that appear in the records every so often. It is therefore imperative that industries that use chemicals are as prepared as they possibly can be for every eventuality.