How to Protect Employees From Toxic Substances and Chemical Hazards Based on OSHA Guidelines

How to Protect Employees From Toxic Substances and Chemical Hazards Based on OSHA Guidelines

In some occupations, working with toxic substances and chemicals is required, so what can be done to keep employees and the worksite safe?

It’s estimated that the U.S. uses more than 86,000 types of chemicals to perform everything from food manufacturing to cleaning a kitchen. Fortunately, OSHA has some great guidelines that can help employers protect their employees from toxic substances and chemical hazards. Here’s a summary of these rules.

How OSHA Classifies Toxic Substances and Chemical Hazards

OSHA classifies both toxic substances and chemical hazards as substances that can cause a range of health or physical problems. A toxic substance or chemical hazard must be capable of mildly or severely harming most users, regardless if they’re allergic to the substance or not.

How Does OSHA Regulate Worker Exposure to Chemicals?

It’s important that all employers protect the health and safety of their young workers, senior employees and everyone else in between. OSHA’s Hazard Communication Standard ensures that information about toxic substances and chemical hazards is easy to understand.

OSHA does this by requiring the development and dissemination of the following:

  • Chemical importers and manufacturers must evaluate the hazards they import or produce, so they can prepare labels and data sheets that convey hazard information;
  • Employers who expose their employees to chemicals or toxins in the workplace must have labels and data sheets that their exposed workers can read and understand;
  • Employers must train their employees to understand the information issued on data sheets and labels, and they must use measures to protect their employees

Recently, the HCS became aligned with the Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labeling of Chemicals. This update makes it possible to establish a clear and coherent approach to classifying chemicals and toxins and communicating vital hazard information.

How Does OSHA Regulate Allowable Airborne Concentrations?

While chemical hazards in the workplace are a serious threat, it’s a lot easier to avoid exposing our skin to solid or liquid chemicals. With the right equipment, most workplace chemicals can be handled without threat. However, exposure is harder to prevent when the substance is airborne.

To solve this problem, employers are required to identify and evaluate respiratory hazards in the workplace. The occupational exposure limits on each substance vary depending on the danger, and you can find exact amounts listed on OSHA’s website.

However, this list can get complicated quickly as there are different explanations for multiple different levels. To make matters worse, many of the Permissible Exposure Limits (PELs) are incorrect or out of date.

For this reason, employers should look at annotated existing Z-Tables when referring to OSHA PELs, but that may not be necessary for other organizations.

Here is a list of organizations that determine PELs levels for employers:

OSHA PELs. Approximately 500 PELs have been estimated by OSHA, many of which use 8-hour time-weighted averages.

PELs for the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA). Every state has its own OSHA-approved plan, but Cal/OSHA, while it’s only permissible in California, has the most extensive list of PELs.

Recommended Exposure Limits (RELs) for the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). As a federal agency, NIOSH RELs is capable of providing PELs recommendations to OSHA and is considered a trusted source of truth.

ACGIH® Threshold Limit Values and Biological Exposure Indices. This private, not-for-profit corporation bases its PELs on health factors that aren't intended to be used as legal standards. Still, they can provide helpful recommendations.

If airborne exposure is high and effective engineering controls aren’t possible, then respirators must be issued at no cost to workers. Surgical masks can’t be used instead of respirators. Employees must be trained on how to properly put on and remove the provided respirators.

How to Recognize a Toxic Substance and Chemical Hazard

OSHA has a series of references that show how to recognize a potential hazard based on the types of chemicals you’re using in your industry and how you intend to use such chemicals.

Besides OSHA standards, the OSHA website has documents from NIOSH, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the California Department of Public Health (CDPH), among other institutions.

The most helpful information from each included document includes:

Laboratory Safety: OSHA Laboratory Standard. Definitions for what’s considered a chemical material in a laboratory. Includes proper use of lab equipment.

Report on Carcinogens. Discusses chemicals that are carcinogenic.

NIOSH Numbered Publications: Criteria Documents. A large database of reference links that discuss industry trends, recommend control procedures, and hazards.

NIOSH Pocket Guide to Chemical Hazards. Discusses general hygiene information.

NIOSH Numbered Publications: Current Intelligence Bulletins. Offers a large list of health and safety topics. A few of these topics are chemical or toxin related.

International Chemical Safety Card. Summarizes health and safety info.

Hazard Evaluation System and Information Services Publications. A CDPH publication that discusses California health and safety protocols for chemicals.

Hazard recognition is a long and complicated topic that can’t be efficiently summarized, which is why employers should research the information they need based on the chemical they’re using.

How to Control Toxic Substances and Chemical Hazards

Based on OSHA guidelines, employers should take specific actions based on the level of exposure an employee will have to a toxic substance or chemical hazard. They state that controlling exposure to these substances is the best method of protecting workers.

The hierarchy of controls can be used to assess what an employer should do to prevent or limit exposure. At the top of the pyramid is elimination and then substitution, whereas the bottom of the pyramid is PPE. The bottom of the pyramid is the least ideal position to be in, while the top of the pyramid represents a best-case scenario.

Here’s what an employer should do based on their position in the pyramid:

Elimination/Substitution. If the chemical isn’t necessary to use, then it should be eliminated. If its use is necessary, it should be substituted with a safer chemical.

Engineering Controls. If it’s possible to make the chemical safer to use, then the workplace should make physical changes to reduce or eliminate the hazard.

Administrative and Work Practice Controls.

If the chemical is still unsafe to use after physical changes are made, then the workplace should create processes and procedures to limit exposure, like retaining job assignments or changing work schedules.

PPE. If the chemical is completely unsafe to use, no matter what the employer has done thus far, then PPE must be worn. These can include chemical protective clothing, gloves, eye protection and a respirator.

Workers have the right to know what hazards are present on the job. If their daily duties involve working with toxic substances and chemical hazards, employers must do what they can to eliminate the hazard. If that isn’t possible, then adequate protection must be provided.

In Conclusion

OSHA has detailed guidelines that all employers must follow if they want to protect their employees, but they aren’t working alone. Plenty of institutions use their expertise to establish regulations to shield employees from toxic substances and chemical hazards. By following these rules, employers can develop happy and healthy work environments for their staff.

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