Whether it be chemical hazards, ergonomic hazards, physical hazards, psychological hazards, or biological hazards, all of them pose a risk to employees’ short-term and long-term well-being. Present in almost all workplaces in some quantity, these hazards are the reason why mitigation and elimination techniques such as using the hierarchy of hazards and performing planned maintenance are necessary.
While the above five categories of hazards are known to put employees at risk of injury, the term “health hazard” has its own particular criteria. Health hazard specifically refers to the properties a hazardous chemical possesses that are an immediate threat to human health upon contact.
Defined by the Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labeling of Chemicals, also known as GHS, health hazards are a part of a set of three broad hazard categories that also include physical hazards and environmental hazards. Compare the definition of health hazard above to that of a physical hazard that pertains directly to a chemical’s destructive properties such as combustion or flammability, or an environmental hazard that causes harm to the surrounding flora and fauna.
Health Hazard Statistics
Around 10% of deaths in the workforce stem from hazardous chemical exposure. That’s close to 60,000 pre-mature deaths per year whether that be because of sustained injuries or illnesses such as cancer after repeated chemical exposure. Not only that, but there are around an additional 860,000 illnesses that are caused by chemical exposure every year.
What exactly is causing these illnesses and deaths? Let’s go over some of the most common chemical exposure risks in the workplace:
- Aluminum production is considered to be carcinogenic due to employee exposure to aluminum dust as well as aluminum oxide.
- Asbestos, while taken out of many industrial building products, still remains in items such as brake pads, roofing materials, and corrugated sheeting, to name a few examples. Aside from those in manufacturing that can be exposed to this hazardous substance, it also is present at mining sites, and in the construction industry. Exposure to asbestos heightens the risk of lung disease.
- Benzene is primarily made from petroleum and is highly present in the oil and gas industry. It’s also used to create styrene, cumene for resins, and cyclohexane for synthetic fibers. High exposure levels of benzene causes blood related problems and can eventually lead to death.
- Lead exposure occurs in workplaces such as refining industries, foundries, soldering, and battery manufacturing plants. Aside from that, the community may be exposed via old lead pipes, lead dust in soil, and those living near hazardous waste sites. Breathing in lead dust or consuming products that contain lead often leads to problems with the nervous system and organs if exposed to a large amount.
- Mercury is often used to create barometers, fluorescent lightbulbs, and blood pressure devices. While oral exposure to mercury isn’t much of a risk, breathing in mercury and mercury compounds enables the hazardous chemical to enter the bloodstream. The brain and kidneys can become permanently damaged after high levels of mercury exposure.
- Petroleum exposure can occur in the event of a spill or refining processes. However, due to the various products petroleum can be made into, health risks vary considerably. It ranges from nervous system effects, respiratory problems, organ issues, etc.
- Pesticide exposure happens most often in the agriculture sector as well as affects the community around those areas. Minor skin irritation and other allergic symptoms often happen with mild exposure levels whereas high levels of pesticide exposure can lead to symptoms such as headache, dizziness, nausea, convulsions, coma, and even death.
- Silica exposure most often comes in the form of silica dust created during construction processes. Silicosis is one of the more common respiratory diseases that comes from exposure to this hazardous substance and causes the lung to harden over with scarred tissue after silica dust becomes embedded in the lungs.
The Ten Classes of Health Hazards
To be defined as a health hazard, exposure to dangerous chemicals must result in one of the following ten classes of health hazards listed here:
- Acute toxicity occurs when someone has been exposed to a substance, whether it be orally, on the skin, or inhalation, that negatively affects their health within 14 days of exposure. Acute toxicity takes high level exposure in either one event or multiple high-level exposures within a 24-hour period.
- Skin corrosion refers to irreversible damage to the epidermis and dermis layers of the body. This includes ulcers, bleeding, and bloody scabs that often result in blanching, alopecia, and heavy scarring.
- Skin irritation is the temporary outbreak of rashes that include redness, bumps, scaly, and itchy patches of skin. Blisters and welts may also be included in this hazard classification.
- Eye damage and eye irritation can occur even after a single exposure. Serious eye damage being irreversible tissue damage within 21 days whereas irritation is often resolved within 21 days.
- Sensitization of the skin or eyes means that when inhaled or toughed, the affected area becomes more sensitive to illnesses such as asthma, conjunctivitis, or an allergic reaction.
- Mutagenicity or genotoxicity refer to chemicals that cause germ cell mutations in the body.
- Carcinogenicity refers to dangerous chemicals that increase the likelihood of the one exposed developing cancer.
- Reproductive toxicity directly refers to fertility and developmental problems after substance exposure.
- Target organ systemic toxicity for single and repeated exposure descriptions are used to define specific organ related toxicity that aren’t otherwise addressed in these ten health hazard classifications.
- Aspiration toxicity refers to the action of inhaling a liquid or solid substance directly or indirectly via vomiting. This only takes one breath and can be deadly.
Health Hazard Categories
After being broken down into the ten hazard classes that were mentioned in the previous section, each of those classes are given a range of hazard categories based on severity. Often ranging from 1-4, and a few sub-categories in between, the highest number will always represent the lowest risk. For example, a hazard with the acute toxicity category of one is highly toxic, while that same class but category three is much less dangerous.
What are the Health Hazard Pictograms?
- Corrosive, depicted as chemicals melting both skin and an inanimate object, which causes permanent skin and eye damage due to burns. It’s recommended that these substances are kept away from the eyes and skin and for the one working around these substances to wear PPE to also avoid breathing in any vapors.
- Toxic, depicted as a skull and crossbones, which can result in death or serious injury even after only being exposed to a small amount of the hazardous substance.
- Harmful, depicted as a human silhouette, is used to describe substances that result in prolonged health effects after both short-term and long-term exposure.
- Irritant, depicted as an exclamation point, is used to describe exposure situations that result in irritation such as rashes, respiratory problems, and other less serious toxic exposures.
The Importance of HCS and GHS Compliance
Hazardous chemicals are regulated by OSHA’s Hazard Communication Standard (HCS). Under the HCS, which is aligned with GHS, manufactured and imported substances that pose a health or physical hazard must feature a compliant label. Those labels must contain a signal word, GHS pictogram(s), hazard statements, and precautionary statements. All chemicals must also be accompanied by a safety data sheet. An SDS for a health hazard will include detailed first aid information, storage controls, toxicological information, and more.
Following the Hazard Communications Standard and GHS requirements that OSHA mandates is essential to give employees all the information they need to protect themselves against dangerous substances.