Chemicals in the workplace can range from completely harmless to extremely toxic; it is the employer’s responsibility to have a safety program that adequately addresses known chemical hazards. For handling and storing chemical hazards or toxic substances, chemical safety will need to be addressed in the organization’s safety and health program.
Regulations & Compliance
The first step to workplace chemical safety is to comply with industry regulations and standards. In the United States, occupational chemical exposure is regulated by OSHA’s Hazard Communication Standard which is formally aligned with the Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labeling of Chemicals (GHS). Requirements under OSHA’s Hazard Communication Standard are twofold:
- Chemical manufacturers, importers, and distributors are required to supply GHS-compliant labels chemicals they produce or import and prepare a Safety Data Sheet that will be sent downstream to their customers. This will ensure chemicals are properly classified and hazards will be effectively communicated to whoever is receiving the chemical or substance.
- Employers are required to have GHS-compliant labels for all hazardous chemicals and Safety Data Sheets must be maintained and kept accessible in the facility. Employees must be trained on how to safety handle chemicals and how to interpret GHS labels.
Planning a Chemical Safety Program
Once compliance is met, it can be beneficial to adopt a proactive approach to chemical safety. OSHA’s set of recommended practices for safety and health programs also serves as a helpful framework for addressing chemical safety in the workplace. The foundation of a strong safety program is strong commitment from management leadership and active worker participation.
- Hazard Identification/Risk Assessment: Employers will want to first take inventory of the chemicals being handled or stored in the facility and locate the corresponding SDS. An SDS has the relevant information for addressing chemical safety including hazard identification, chemical composition, first-aid and fire-fighting measures, handling and storage recommendations, exposure controls, etc. and is a good place to start planning a chemical safety program.
- Hazard Prevention & Control: The next step is prioritizing the list based on the severity of potential outcomes and the likelihood of exposure; hazards presenting the greatest risk will be at the top of the list. Employers should use the hierarchy of hazard controls to determine what control options (elimination, substitution, engineering controls, administrative controls, and PPE) are both feasible and effective.
- Training: Training and education is key to keeping employees safe. In addition to knowing how to safely handle chemicals and read GHS labels, workers should be trained to recognize chemical hazards and to understand different kinds of control measures. Employees must be able to locate SDS’s, know what PPE they will need to wear, and even the principles of the organization’s chemical safety program.
- Periodic Evaluation & Continuous Improvement: Management and employees should continue to work together to assess and evaluate safety efforts. It can be beneficial to set and track goals that will indicate whether or not the program is helping. Risk assessments should be conducted periodically to identify any improvement opportunities and it will be important to revisit control measures to determine their effectiveness.
Taking a proactive approach to chemical safety will help employers prevent workplace injuries and illnesses, ensure compliance, reduce costs, engage workers, and even increase overall productivity for the organization.