Many workplaces in the UK require the use of chemicals. Yet, exposure to chemicals commonly used in workplace environments can lead to a variety of health effects – both short and long-term – including poisoning, skin rashes, eye issues and problems with the lungs, kidneys and other internal organs. It is therefore a necessity for businesses and their employees to be safe and responsible with chemicals in the workplace environment. In this article, let’s focus on the different types of chemicals commonly found in the workplace, the industries in which these chemicals are used, and safety tips to outline how you and your team can securely and responsibly ensure that there is safe handling of hazardous chemicals onsite.
Types of chemicals handled in the workplace
From irritants to flammables, there are many different types of chemicals that are used in a variety of workplace settings. In total, there are around nine key classifications for workplace chemical hazards. However, some chemicals may fall into more than one of these categories:
- Asphyxiants: These chemicals deprive the body of oxygen. The transference and use of oxygen in the bloodstream is interrupted if inhaled.
- Irritants: Hazards which cause harm to the eyes, respiratory tract or skin are classed as irritants. They can be slightly, moderately or highly water-soluble. Reactions can include rashes, coughing, inflammation, or even haemorrhaging. Some irritants can be fatal.
- Corrosives: Chemicals like sulfuric acid, the world’s most commonly produced industrial chemical, and sodium hydroxide can cause irreversible changes to materials after direct contact. Corrosives can also cause localised reactions to the human body during the point of contact, or could also create systemic chemical exposure when mixed with other substances.
- Mutagens: Chemicals which can cause genetic changes to the cellular structure of DNA and RNA are classed as mutagens. These hazards can interfere with biological function, cause cancer or result in a localised malfunction of a particular organ. Examples include ionising radiation and hydrogen peroxide.
- Carcinogens: There are more than 200 known human carcinogens. Even relatively small amounts of these cancer–causing substances, such as formaldehyde and benzene, can severely harm the health of humans.
- Allergens: Chemicals known as allergens are known to cause allergic reactions in persons who are repeatedly exposed to them over time. The exposure can manifest itself as a simple swelling of the airway which then develops into a more dangerous illness like lung disease. Illnesses like asthma have been linked to over-exposure to workplace chemicals like chlorine.
- Teratogens: These chemicals can disrupt foetal development. This could cause birth defects or heavy advancement of pregnancy. Examples include ionising radiation and organic mercury compounds used in dentistry.
- Flammables: Chemicals which easily ignite or burn when exposed to oxygen are classed as flammable. Examples include butane, acetone and methanol.
- Reactives: Substances which cause chemical hazards when combined with other substances or compounds are known as reactives.
Industries where handling chemicals is part of the job
There are many different types of businesses which require use of chemicals for everyday operations. Almost all industries – from food service to manufacturing, and from transport to agriculture – require the use of chemicals on a daily basis. For example, a food-service employee might need to use peroxide – a chemical found in most bleaches – when cleaning up spillages. Common hazardous substances found across a wide variety of workplaces include:
- Caustic agents
- Heavy metals (mercury, cadmium, aluminium and lead)
- Petroleum-based products
Safety tips and regulations to know in the workplace
To ensure that your business knows everything that they need to know about the safe handling of hazardous chemicals, it is important to familiarise yourself with the Health and Safety Executive’s COSHH basic guidelines. COSHH has many health and safety guidelines for businesses to follow. They even provide useful information on chemical safety that goes into describing chemical hazards, how to make a risk assessment, and more.
With chemical safety, COSHH even provides information on the proper storage and handling of hazardous chemicals too. Whether you need to store flammable liquids or other hazardous materials, you should opt for COSHH hazardous materials storage cabinets that comply with current UK legislation. Made from sheet steel and with lockable doors, these cabinets are fitted with the BS5378 warning sign and allow businesses to safely store potentially dangerous materials in the workplace.
When dealing with these hazardous chemicals in your workplace, you need to be aware of the following:
The importance of employee training
Full training should be provided to any employees who have to come into contact with hazardous substances as part of their role. This should include full risk assessments and a safety checklist should be placed in areas which contain chemicals. Training can be provided in-house or by a third party, but it is essential for all team members.
Using PPE for the safe handling of hazardous chemicals
PPE, or personal protective equipment, refers to clothing or accessories which are worn to minimise exposure to hazards which could potentially cause workplace illness or injury. When handling chemicals in the workplace, the right type of PPE should be worn at all times. This can include things like gloves when cleaning, goggles to protect the eyes from coming into contact with chemicals, and breathing apparatus to prevent the inhalation of noxious substances.
Activating fast with appropriate spillage control
If a spillage of hazardous chemicals has occurred, it is important to enact spillage control management as soon as possible. Chemical spills which are left unattended can cause a range of health and safety problems for your business. Employees could slip on the spillage, dangerous fumes could be inhaled, or the spill could be a flammable, irritant, or corrosive chemical. Spill control kits are designed to minimise the spread of spills, absorb harmful chemicals and protect from slippages in the event of a spill.
Ensuring the safe storage of hazardous chemicals
For the safe handling of hazardous chemicals, it is crucial that they are stored safely and away from other hazards which could cause contamination, fire or other hazards. As part of your business COSHH risk assessment, all dangerous chemicals should be adequately stored. As well as using safe storage cabinets or tanks, placement of the chemical storage should also be considered too. Employers should consider a safe location which can protect these dangerous substances from damage, fire, and theft.
Exposure to chemicals which are widely used in our workplaces can have serious long-term or short-term effects on our health. It is important that businesses offer as much information and advice on reducing the risks of working with hazardous substances. Businesses also have a duty of care to provide adequate protective equipment and storage facilities for dangerous substances.