Prevent Workplace Chemical Exposure Risk Via Monitoring Solutions

Does your company use hazardous chemicals? If so, as a manager, you must provide full protection for your workplace—and especially for your employees. Fortunately, there are a variety of platforms, tools, and best practices—including air monitoring solutionsavailable to help you do just that.

As we know, chemicals are crucial for R&D and production in life sciences, industry, higher education, and other fields of study or enterprise. However, they are frequently dangerous, both alone and in combination, and pose risks to your workers, assets, and even the surrounding community.

Chemical safety is a major issue nationwide—a significant chemical event typically occurs at least weekly. In fact, experts claim there is one chemical-related accident every two days nationwide. PreventionWeb, a website maintained by the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR), claims that between 2021 and late 2023, the United States saw 825 chemical incidents.

Workplace Chemical Safety a Must

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA’s) General Duty Clause requires employers to ensure the workplace is free from dangers that can hurt or kill workers. Along with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), OSHA is the primary author of legally enforceable chemical exposure standards.

Besides the obvious risk to employee well-being, failure to comply with these official guidelines can mean:

  • Costly penalties: As of this year, fines run up to $16,131 per violation, per day.
  • Operational damage: A chemical accident can harm employees, disrupt operations, and hurt organizational reputation—any of which costs time, effort, and often money.
  •  Workforce churn: Quality, qualified, technically trained employees who feel an employer isn’t protecting them are likely to become discouraged, and seek jobs elsewhere.

These are just some downsides to unsafe chemical practices. Given this situation, managers must perform due diligence to protect their team members.

Chemical Risks to Employees

The number of workplace dangers chemicals pose are vast. For instance:

  • If managed unsafely or incorrectly, pressurized gas cylinders can puncture and explode.
  • Without proper personal protective equipment (PPE), employees are liable to absorb laboratory solvents through their skin—which can damage their health.  
  • During routine laboratory operations, workers can inhale vapors from hazardous and volatile chemicals.
  • When in a facility without adequate engineering controls, workers handling moisture-sensitive chemicals can cause explosions and fires.
  • Corrosive materials have the potential to cause chemical burn damage, sometimes even irreversible, to living tissue.

As we can easily see, the consequences of skimping on chemical inventory safety can be severe. 

4 Routes of Chemical Exposure

To understand chemical risks more fully, managers must know hazardous chemicals' four primary entry routes into a worker’s body. They are:

  1. Inhalation: The respiratory track (including the lungs) is the primary avenue of worker chemical exposure. Therefore, OSHA bases its enforceable standards around this vectornaturally, with NIOSH's input. Managers should prioritize inhalation prevention and use every solution and protocol available to that end. This includes applying proven, modern monitoring solutions, as we'll discuss below. 

  2. Absorption: Chemical absorption is the second most common chemical exposure vector. This is the transport of a chemical from the skin’s outer surface into the deeper layers of skin and connected blood vessels. The chemical continues to infiltrate the body, eventually reaching the internal organs. Absorption typically occurs in sites without control measures. In such places, where there are no (or improper) PPE practices, just an accidental chemical splash on to the skin or eyes can cause an injury. 

  3. Ingestion: This occurs when an employee’s digestive system absorbs chemicals. An organization that promotes good housekeeping and laboratory rules, however, can go a long way to prevent both direct and indirect ingestion. This vector is one of the major reasons labs bar workers from bringing food or drinks into the work environment.

  4. Injection: Chemicals can also enter the body directly through the skin’s surface, via a sharp instrument. When this occurs, chemicals infiltrate the bloodstream, and depending on the type of chemical, they can damage internal organs and tissues. The best way to prevent injection is to ensure employees apply proper protocols when handling (or disposing of) any sharp tool.

Chemical Exposure's Upper Limits

We'll focus on the number one chemical vector: inhalation. To ensure chemicals in the air don’t become a health hazard, regulators have established official, enforceable occupational exposure limits (OELs). These define the acceptable concentration of a hazardous substance in a lab, production area, or other work environment.

There are several types of OELs:

  1. Permissible Exposure Limit (PEL)
  2. Recommended Exposure Limit (REL)
  3. Threshold Limit Value (TLV)

These definitions will come into play in workplace activities, as we'll see. 

OSHA Action Levels

The government has also established chemical exposure action levels (ALs). An AL threshold is generally defined as one-half of the PEL, unless otherwise indicated. When chemical quantities exceed these limits, the employer must remediate the workplace environment.

Currently in the United States, the only standards legally enforceable are PELs and ALs. Managers should understand the following:

  • PEL threshold violations: If a chemical has exceeded its PEL, the employer must restore the workplace to under-PEL conditions. Managers should also roll out workplace controls to limit future exposures. To assist with this, OSHA offers a Hierarchy of Controls document, which offers guidance for chemical and general workplace safety.
  • Bench-scale environments: If an organization uses hazardous chemicals in a laboratory setting, while conducting bench-scale experiments, managers should refer to 29 CFR 1910.1450: Occupational Exposure to Hazardous Chemicals in Laboratories.
  • Enterprise environments: On the other hand, general industry companies (whose work involves hazardous chemicals on a larger, production-scale setting) should refer to 29 CFR 1910.1200: Hazard Communication.

Implementing Monitoring Solutions

Given the stakes, it is crucial for administrators or managers to regularly inspect their workplace for exposure risks—and roll out control measures (if they haven’t already). The first protective step is to confirm what chemicals they have on site. They can gain this information by implementing a functional chemical inventory management program. Ideally, this will go beyond just cumbersome, manually intensive, and outdated Excel- or paper-based systems.

Step two is to review all information sources and specific chemical safety data sheets (SDSs). Managers should also be aware of a variety of specialized topics, including maximum allowable quantities (MAQs), among others, before bringing any chemical into the workplace. Once the chemical data gathering phase is complete, it’s necessary to undertake proper control measures—including the rollout of exposure monitoring so managers can make decisions with real data.

Taking Chemical Samples

Protecting workers will require knowing as much as possible about the chemical traces of their work environments. This means monitoring, in near real-time, the air they breathe, and analyzing it carefully for danger. If chemical quantities exceed PELs, the system can issue a notification and managers can react accordingly.

Sampling protocols should require harvesting data about:

  • Used or stored chemicals, and their risks
  • Amounts of chemical used
  • Exposures that have occurred (or have the potential to occur) as part of a job hazard analysis

Near-constant measurement of all these factors (as well as of air quality and other environmental conditions in the workplace) is key. It can allow managers to consistently monitor and ensure exposure limits are not breached. It will enable them to perform the necessary calculations to both set exposure thresholds and make informed decisions about workplace chemical exposure.

The result? A safe working environment.

Fortunately, to help with this task, OSHA and NIOSH provide both sampling and analytical methods to enable managers to perform a thorough exposure determination and assessment. At Triumvirate Environmental, we know these systems work—our own highly competent EHS consultants use the NIOSH measurement methods. They apply them internally, relying on them for analysis of various industrial hygiene laboratories.

Partnering for Chemical Safety Success

Successful chemical inventory management and operational safety requires proper training, modern inventory solutions, top protocols, and more. Don’t lose control of your lab or production environment by improperly storing and handling chemicals.

Success here is challenging—but failure is intolerable, given it can result in injured and exposed employees. Fortunately, you can turn to a trusted partner to assist you in all phases of your chemical inventory management program—including when implementing safety policies and solutions.

Triumvirate Environmental is that partner. We can provide a platform and services portfolio to enable your success in safety and chemical operations. Talk to us today about your chemicals and the related exposure risks. Learn more about how we can assist you to eliminate these vulnerabilities, through best practices, training, monitoring solutions, and more.

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