Industrial workers are exposed to a wide range of environmental dangers every day, and while most of the dangers are easily visible and avoidable, chemical hazards pose a silent, deadly threat. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention identified five chemical hazards that are especially dangerous in the workplace, even with only acute exposure. Companies must work diligently to find safer alternatives to these chemicals, or institute safety programs that significantly reduce risk for employees.
Though most often associated with leaks in the home, carbon monoxide is a serious problem in enclosed industrial spaces with little circulation. Carbon monoxide is the natural byproduct of internal combustion engines, as seen on some forklifts or transport vehicles inside a factory, and is virtually undetectable to human beings.
Carbon monoxide poisoning occurs when someone is exposed to more than 50 ppm over several minutes or hours, and OSHA prohibits exposure to more than 100 ppm. People suffering from the condition experience lightheadedness, headaches, and confusion before, eventually, shutting down the respiratory system. Even low level exposure over weeks or months can have devastating consequences for memory and mental health.
To fight carbon monoxide issues in the workplace, the CDC recommends several courses of action. First, companies should substitute battery powered vehicles for gas powered vehicles in any enclosed work area. Second, factories or industrial plants at high risk for carbon monoxide issues should supplement existing ventilation systems with portable, personal ventilators near high risk areas. Finally, the installation of carbon monoxide detectors is a measure of last resort for emergency warnings.
Ammonia is a common ingredient in household and industrial cleaning agents, and poses little threat in small doses or in its liquid form. Ammonia becomes dangerous once the liquid is exposed to oxygen, transforming it into ammonia gas.
The onset of ammonia poisoning are swift, usually within just a few minutes. Exposed victims suffer from runny nose, shortness of breath, red eyes, and a burning throat. If the exposure continues, victims may suffer burns to the respiratory system and the gastrointestinal tract. Severe ingestion can cause problems with the central nervous system, leading to paralysis and death.
Companies can combat ammonia exposure through the transition to non-ammonia based cleaners and the distribution of face masks when ammonia is used in the facility. Ventilators and fans operating while cleaning can further limit the risk.
Once used as a weapon of mass destruction during World War I, chlorine is now considered one of the most important chemicals to the modern electronics industry. It plays an essential role in the construction of circuit boards and semiconductors, and continues to be the bleaching agent of choice for the paper industry.
Chlorine, especially in its gaseous form, is deadly at much lower levels than other industrial chemicals. At as little as 15 ppm, victims experience irritation, and by 60 ppm, permanent respiratory damage may occur. Chlorine gas becomes deadly at 1000 ppm, even if the victim is only exposed for a few minutes.
Incidents of chlorine exposure are difficult for employers to combat, because there are very few chemicals that can replace chlorine. Instead of eliminating the risk or substituting the chemical, employers must focus on administrative and engineering hazard controls. The CDC discovered that education about the safe transport and handling of chlorine can have a substantial impact on the rate of incident. Additionally, ventilators and fans located near the floor can be effective in moving chlorine away from employee workspaces.
Hydrochloric acid is a vital chemical in the processing and manufacture of metals, textiles, and rubber. It is one of the world’s strongest acids, and may cause permanent damage at very low levels of exposure.
Short-term exposure to hydrochloric acid will cause irritation of the eyes and other soft tissues. The first warning sign is often a sharp cough and trouble breathing. As exposure increases, victims suffer from internal bleeding and gastrointestinal failure. Long-term exposure may lead to light sensitivity, hyperplasia and severe dental problems. Death and permanent scarring are possibilities for direct exposure to the acid, even if only for a few seconds.
Currently there are efforts to make safe alternatives to acidic cleaners and compounds in the workplace. Organic salts with a very low pH have demonstrated the same cleaning capacity as hydrochloric acid, and may soon be an option. For employers, providing plenty of washing stations and personal protective equipment is the first step, but it must be coupled with education and training programs to have an effect.
Perhaps the most deadly chemical in the workplace, sulfuric acid is a critical component in the manufacture of most fertilizers, batteries, acids, and metals. Its extremely corrosive nature makes it exceptionally dangerous in its most common concentrations.
In low doses, short-term exposure to sulfuric acid can cause damage to the respiratory tract and teeth when the acid is inhaled. Physical contact with sulfuric acid will cause burns and scars at most concentrations. Long-term exposure will cause increased sensitivity for the eyes and throat, leading to periodic bleeding and chronic dryness. Over time, scarring in the lungs will cause lung failure and death. Direct exposure to high concentrations will leave serious, immediate scars or burns.
Some alternatives exist to sulfuric acid in the workplace, most notably the process of ion exchange, which eliminates the need for acids in a reverse osmosis system. Other research has shown that carbon dioxide is a comparable alternative to sulfuric acid when neutralize pH. As with hydrochloric acid, employers can further increase their commitment to safety with washing stations and personal protective equipment.
Chemicals in the workplace represent serious hazards to employees and the public, if the chemicals are improperly handled. It is the responsibility of industrial managers and factory operators to ensure the proper procedures are in place to limit chemical risks.
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OSHA: Chemical Hazards And Toxic Substances