The number of chemicals used in industrial, office and construction workplaces each day is staggering. And many workers are indeed staggering from the physical effects of toxic fumes and constant exposure.
Safety management plans can identify the obvious ones, but the fact is the number of chemicals that in use and under regulation are fewer than you might think. It may take years for a specific ingredient in a workplace product to be identified as toxic. Every year more than 190,000 workers suffer health-related problems directly attributable to harmful chemicals. Tragically, more than 50,000 people die from it each year.
Cancer is a major health problem from chemical exposure. And other diseases have been identified affecting most of the other parts of the body: skin, brain, lungs, kidneys, and reproductive organs.
The first step to making your workplace healthier is to pick out which products contain chemicals that are causing, or are suspected of causing, illness or allergic-type reactions.
A one- or two-person shop can do this quite easily. If you’re worried about a certain product, you simply write in on your suspect list.
For larger companies, OSHA recommends setting up a team to develop a plan for a careful transition to safer chemicals. OSHA has a toolkit available on its website that breaks this down in to a step-by-step process.
When you know or suspect which chemicals are causing trouble, your next step is to find safer substitutes. To find the best alternative, follow a plan:
- identify specifically what job each chemical needs to accomplish
- determine what criteria for health and safety you need to use for evaluating the possible substitutes
- figure out if workers will need to use new procedures to use the alternative. If so, how will this affect work practices and workflow?
- compare costs and performance between the new and old products
Don’t Go From The Frying Pan Into The Fire
Ideally, you want a new product that is safe and not at all detrimental to a worker’s health. Do your research. Make sure that potential substitutes don’t present just a different type of hazard to your employees. It makes no sense to replace one toxicity with another.
Questions to ask include:
- does it harm the eyes or skin
- does it cause reactions or sensitivity, especially to the skin or respiratory system
- is it associated with any type of cancer
- has it been shown to cause problems for the reproductive organs, endocrine system, developmental delays or ongoing immune system troubles
- is it corrosive, flammable, explosive or oxidizing
- when it is used, is the noise too loud, are there ergonomic problems, is there too much vibration
Test And Choose
Assess each of the new potential chemical products using both safety guidelines and how it performs in comparison to the old chemical. Research all the information that is available.
Your safety management plans should include procedures for choosing healthy products. Follow your own rules and the guidelines offered on the OSHA website. The more research you do at this stage, the better chance you have of finding a safe product that does the job as well or even better than the old one.
Cost is certainly a consideration, but be sure to look at the need to find safer chemicals from a long-term perspective. Caring for worker safety encourages worker loyalty, reduces turnover and sick leave, and prevents personal injury suits. It is a win-win for workers and for management.
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