How to Safeguard Employees Working with Hazardous Materials
Employee exposure to hazardous materials and chemicals is quite common in many workplaces. Such exposures can have a detrimental impact on employees’ health and increase the risks to their safety and well-being in both the short- and long-term. However, the greatest risk of adverse health impacts is faced by those workers who are involved in work tasks that expose them to hazardous substances or dangerous chemicals day in and day out. Examples include employees of hazardous waste operations and chemical manufacturers as well as construction and healthcare workers. Such workers are regularly exposed to hazardous materials that can cause poisoning, respiratory conditions, skin disorders, cancers, and other non-fatal and fatal illnesses.
The growing global consumerization has led to the increasing production and use of hazardous chemicals and other toxic substances to produce goods and offer services (as an example, consider the increasing use of cleaning products and disinfectants today, both in homes and workplaces). This increasing exposure of workers to chemical hazards and toxic substances such as pollutants, dusts, vapors, and gases was quantified by the International Labour Organization (ILO) in 2021 as over 1 billion annually. The ILO further states that this could lead to a global health crisis due to occupational exposure to hazardous materials and toxic chemicals (2021).
This reiterates the need for safeguarding workers’ health from exposure to hazardous materials and other hazardous substances.
Chemicals, hazardous substances, and hazardous materials workers may be exposed to while at the workplace include asbestos, silica, lead, acids, hazardous wastes, bloodborne pathogens and OPIMs, hydrogen sulfide, pesticides, solvents, compressed gases, and heavy metals.
Safeguarding Worker Safety and Health is Mandated by Law
In the United States, the safety of employees falls under the purview of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). OSHA has developed and implemented a range of standards to protect employees in the workplace. These standards are categorized according to General Industry, Construction Industry, Maritime, and Agriculture. According to the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 (OSH Act), every employee has the “right” to expect to work in a safe and secure work environment, while every employer is expected to provide a workplace that is safe and devoid of known dangers. This means that an employer must follow all OSHA standards and comply with them to the highest possible levels.
It is also worth noting that in instances of non-compliance with OSHA standards or safety laws and regulations, employers can face heavy penalties from OSHA and other law enforcement agencies. Additionally, employee injuries or fatalities due to employer negligence can cause not only a stoppage of work but also a negative impact on the organization’s reputation.
8 Ways to Safeguard Employees Working with Hazardous Materials
Let us explore how OSHA standards guide and direct best practices to support employers in implementing measures to safeguard employees working with hazardous materials or being exposed to hazardous substances or toxic chemicals.
#1 Safety and Health Plans
To safeguard workers, OSHA recommends employers implement relevant safety and health plans and processes at the workplace, be it a manufacturing operation or a construction site. Employers must develop a safety and health plan and ensure all aspects concerning employees’ safety and health are duly identified and detailed. Some elements that a safety and health plan must include are people in charge of safety and health at the workplace, hazard assessment and actions to reduce exposure risks, medical surveillance, employee training requirements, appropriate PPE to use used, decontamination methods, and emergency protocols. As relevant, protocols and procedures for handling hazardous materials and other toxic substances must also be detailed.
#2 Training Employees
Another critical way to safeguard employees’ health and safety when working with hazardous materials, is to provide them with appropriate OSHA-compliant training. Workers must have knowledge and understanding of the hazardous materials they work with or are exposed to while carrying out work tasks. For instance, a construction worker employed to renovate or undertake repair work in an old building may be exposed to asbestos hazards. He/she should be equipped with the knowledge to identify if such risks exist when they begin their work.
Training employees is also an integral part of complying with OSHA standards. All OSHA standards advocate employers to provide appropriate and adequate training to employees when their jobs expose them to hazardous materials.
Today, employers can easily fulfill training requirements as many safety training service providers such as HAZWOPER OSHA Training have developed OSHA-compliant safety training online courses that are easy to access and reasonably priced. These training courses are also fully narrated and include modern learning tools such as animations and quizzes supporting information retention and a fulfilling learning experience.
Employers have a choice of safety training courses to choose from depending on the hazardous materials their employees may be exposed to. OSHA Asbestos Training, OSHA Silica Awareness Training, and OSHA Bloodborne Pathogens Training are some examples of the topic-specific online training courses available today. When workers work in hazardous waste operations, OSHA’s HAZWOPER standard requires mandatory annual training ranging from initial 40-hour HAZWOPER training to 24-hour treatment, storage, and disposal facility training and annual refresher training.
#3 Labeling and Safety Data Sheets
When employees are exposed to hazardous chemicals, OSHA requires that employers ensure all chemicals in the workplace are properly labeled, while each chemical’s Safety Data Sheet (SDS) is within easy access to employees. As interpreting the labels and SDSs can be complex, employers must ensure that employees are trained in interpreting these hazard communication elements. To simplify this understanding process, employers can enroll workers in an OSHA Hazard Communication with GHS Training.
#4 Reducing Exposure to Hazardous Materials
Employers should as much as possible reduce employee exposure to hazardous materials. This can be accomplished by utilizing the Hierarchy of Controls. By following this step-by-step approach, employers can either eliminate, substitute, or use engineering or administrative control measures to reduce hazard exposure. The final step is to use personal protective equipment in instances where hazardous materials exposure risks cannot be fully eliminated.
#5 Personal Protective Equipment
While the aim is to always eliminate or minimize risks to hazardous materials and hazardous substances, in practice this may not always be possible or practical. Thus, employers must provide employees with appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) when they work with or may be exposed to hazardous materials. There are a range and variety of PPE available for use by employer and employees. The level of hazmat protective equipment is dependent on the level of exposure to hazardous material and chemicals. Hence, it is the employer’s duty to identify the level of exposure through a job hazard analysis and provide adequate PPE to safeguard employees working with hazardous materials. Again, OSHA standards guide employees in identifying the appropriate PPE for different hazard exposures.
#6 Medical Surveillance
OSHA requires employees exposed to hazardous materials to undergo regular medical surveillance according to the level of exposure. If working with hazardous waste, OSHA’s Hazardous Waste Operations and Emergency Response standard (HAZWOPER) requires stringent pre-medical screening before work begins, and regular medical screening while employees are involved in the waste handling. The medical surveillance requirements differ from standard to standard, so employers must refer to the specific standard for distinct requirements. The standard-specific medical surveillance requirements are often summarized in the relevant training programs.
#7 Atmospheric Testing
Testing and sampling the atmosphere of the workplace or the worksite is not only a good practice but mandatory according to some OSHA standards. For instance, if employees are working in a confined space or at an excavation site, then atmospheric testing for hazardous substances such as toxic gases or low oxygen levels before work begins for the day and while the work is progressing is a safeguard against asphyxiation hazards and suffocation. Thus, as relevant, employers must implement processes for testing the atmosphere where their employees could be exposed to toxins, dusts, or other vapors in the air.
#8 Written Records
According to OSHA, employers must maintain and retain written records of hazards in the workplace, employee exposure, medical screening records, and results of air and atmospheric testing and sampling, among others. While these written records are mandated by law, employers also can use the data in such records for improving their safety and health plans in the workplace. Additionally, this information would also help to identify and manage the risks associated with similar projects or worksites in the future enabling a better and far superior outcome related to minimizing and safeguarding employee exposure to hazardous materials.
International Labour Organization (ILO). (2021). Exposure to hazardous chemicals at work and resulting health impacts: A global review [PDF]. Website. https://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/—ed_dialogue/—lab_admin/documents/publication/wcms_811455.pdf
OSHA. (2019). Workers’ Rights [PDF]. OSHA 3021-12R 2019. Website. https://www.osha.gov/sites/default/files/publications/osha3021.pdf