Teaching employees to handle and use each chemical safely does not require them to carry around volumes of manuals or countless handouts.

Three Hazmat Rules Every Employee Can Remember

Teach employees to get into the good habit of reading every label every time they pick up or pour from a container.

While it might be impressive to show slides of perfectly balanced chemical equations and review a dozen case studies in training, most people won’t remember them after five minutes, let alone five days. And, really, do they need to? Will those slides and studies help the employees remember to wear their personal protective equipment (PPE) or remind them to check a pressure valve? Will they actually help make the workplace safer?

The ultimate goal of training is to increase understanding and ability. Keeping trainings simple facilitates this goal—especially when it comes to working with hazardous materials.

Some safety regulations have timed training requirements to ensure that employees will have adequate time to learn the things that they need to know to perform their job safely. Many regulations, however, do not, which doesn't mean that the hazard is unimportant or that training can be taken lightly. But it does mean that training can be more easily tailored to fit the needs of the facility and the employees.

From Millions to One
According to the Chemical Abstract Service, more than 97 million chemical substances are currently registered. Chances are, no single facility has all of these chemicals on site, but most facilities do have hazardous materials that are stored, managed, and/or used throughout the site. With each hazardous chemical comes the requirement to properly train employees so that they can work with and manage it safely.

For facilities with large numbers of hazardous chemicals on site, it can take some time to prepare trainings that address the specific hazards of each chemical. In addition to the hazards of the chemical itself, processes that utilize those chemicals may also present unique hazards.

Fortunately, many chemicals can be grouped into classes. For example, most solvents are flammable. If 10 different flammable solvents are used on site, the hazards of each solvent are similar, and the process where they are used is the same, it probably makes sense to train employees to handle those solvents in the same manner instead of having a unique set of procedures for each of the 10 solvents.

Even though chemicals may be similar, it is still important to handle each of them safely. But as employees recognize similarities between chemicals, it can make it easier for them to remember how to safely handle each of them.

Chances are good that even after years of training, many employees still will not be able to list all of the ingredients in complex chemical mixtures. But if they know the following three rules, they can still work with hazardous chemicals safely.

Rule #1: Follow the Plan
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) requires facilities to assess hazards in their workplaces. When hazards are identified, plans and procedures must be developed and put in place to prevent those hazards from harming employees. Plans outline the standard operating procedures or processes that employees need to follow to safely handle hazardous chemicals in a manner that prevents harm.

Following the plan may involve checking valve fittings, hoses, or pipelines for leaks before starting a process. It may include checking air monitoring devices. It could detail wearing the appropriate PPE or storing hazardous materials properly when they are not in use. Chances are good that even when many different hazardous chemicals are in use, the plans for handling each type may be similar.

Plans and procedures that are clear and easy to follow are a key to working safely with hazardous materials. If the plan is complex, enlist the help of employees who are involved in the process to simplify it until it makes sense and everyone is not only able to follow the steps, but also understands why each is necessary to ensure their safety.

Rule #2: Read the Label
Performing the same routine all day every day usually forms habits. Teach employees to get into the good habit of reading every label every time they pick up or pour from a container. This will help focus their attention on making sure that they are using the right product for the job and minimize the chance for unintentionally exposing themselves to a hazard or causing an unintended chemical reaction.

OSHA's adoption of the globally harmonized standards for labeling chemicals (GHS) has changed the way hazardous chemicals are labeled. By now, everyone should be trained to identify all of those new pictograms, be familiar with hazard statements, and be able to recognize the other new labeling elements. But these precautions are meaningless if no one takes the time to stop and read them.

Rule #3: Pay Attention
Complacency is a common cause of unsafe acts. It can include not having eyes on the task, daydreaming, or being otherwise preoccupied.

Complacency can also come from working safely with hazardous chemicals for so long that the perception of their true danger is minimized. This can make it difficult for workers to pay attention to tasks, which can lead to near misses and incidents.

Employees need to be reminded of the dangers that hazardous materials present in their work areas. Labels and signs can help with this, but they should not be the only reminders. One way to keep chemical information fresh in employees’ minds is to review a single safety data sheet at weekly safety meetings or during toolbox talks.

While it is essential to teach employees how to work with hazardous materials safely, it is also important to teach them what to do when things go wrong. This training may include knowing the signs of exposure, emergency shutdown and evacuation, use of specialized PPE, first aid, or other specialized procedures.

Teaching employees to handle and use each one safely does not require them to carry around volumes of manuals or countless handouts. Employees who remember to follow established plans, read labels, and pay attention to the task at hand will be able to handle and manage hazardous materials safely.

This article originally appeared in the July 2015 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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