Managing Chemical & Asbestos Exposure in the Workplace

1st August 2017

The risk of exposure to the silicate mineral asbestos and other harmful chemicals is a common threat in the workplace, particularly in industrial environments and on construction sites. Once thought to be a miracle mineral for its resistance to heat, fire, and a plethora of other substances, asbestos is now known to cause a significant number of health issues, including:

  • Mesothelioma, which is an aggressive form of lung cancer.
  • Asbestosis—an inflammatory lung disease that causes severe shortness of breath.
  • COPD—exposure to asbestos directly increases the risk of developing this obstructive disease, which causes worsening shortness of breath and a chronic cough.
  • Lung cancer: quite apart from the form of lung cancer caused specifically by asbestos, the mineral can cause other forms of primary lung cancer.

Exposure to hazardous chemicals on the other hand can also result in a number of health issues, such as:

  • Skin irritation from contact with irritants, including oils.
  • Burns and other injuries to skin and eyes from contact with corrosive liquids.
  • Asthma from frequent inhalation of isocyanates, found in paint fumes.

With the possibility of such health risks occurring from exposure to asbestos or hazardous chemicals, it is vital that U.K. businesses take proactive measures to ensure their employees receive thorough protection from exposure to these substances.

Who is at risk?

Chemical exposure typically affects the body through a number of entry points:

  • Inhalation.  By inhaling contaminated air, workers can suffer from the effects of hazardous chemicals. Carbon monoxide is one such example of a dangerous inhaled chemical.
  • Skin contact. Chemical incidents often occur as a result of direct or indirect skin contact. The chemicals can cause damage to the skin or enter the bloodstream through the skin.
  • Ingestion. Workers can accidentally swallow harmful chemicals on contaminated food.
  • Injection. In some instances, sharp objects can puncture the skin and inject dangerous chemicals into the bloodstream.

Anyone in the workplace who comes into direct contact with hazardous chemicals is therefore at risk from chemical exposure. Asbestos gets released into the air when structures containing the mineral deteriorate or get disturbed and many older buildings and structures still contain asbestos.

While asbestos use is now more strictly controlled than ever, but many people working in construction, shipyards, power plants, steel mills, or oil refineries are either at risk or have been at risk. Those most at risk of asbestos exposure are construction workers (home renovators and demolition crews), firefighters, industrial workers (mechanics, foremen, machinery operators, chemical workers), power plant workers and shipyard workers.

Recommended safety precautions

Employers have a direct responsibility to ensure that they reduce the possibility of exposure to asbestos and chemicals in the workplace. The following safety precautions should be implemented and adhered to to achieve this goal.

Ensure Adequate Staff Training

Adequate staff training helps to educate and inform employees on how to work safely and competently around asbestos and hazardous chemicals. Training should involve developing awareness of the dangers of these substances in addition to ensuring correct chemical safety measures are taken in the workplace.

It is important that employees receive ongoing training to further increase their knowledge of hazardous substances. A continuous training program also underlines the importance of handling dangerous chemicals correctly.

Always Use PPE

In instances where exposure to chemicals cannot be prevented by other means, employees should always use personal protective equipment (PPE). Equipment most commonly used for personal protection includes respirators, safety glasses, gloves, and overalls.

PPE should be replaced at regular intervals. Furthermore, contaminated PPE equipment needs to be separated from other items and washed in isolation. Employees should never take home overalls that have been contaminated with asbestos.

Notify management of suspected exposure to asbestos/chemicals

Employees should notify senior management in the event they suspect either exposure or overexposure to asbestos or harmful chemicals. A vital aspect of reducing the risk of chemical or asbestos incidents in the workplace is evaluating those risks through regular risk assessments.

Such risk assessments help to establish the nature of potential risks, identify necessary actions to remove or control those risks, and implement the required actions.  The findings of any risk assessment should be communicated to employees, and a copy made available on site.

Use certified hazardous waste and storage units

Hazardous chemicals should only ever be stored in chemical storage units that are built precisely for the purpose of storing such chemicals. Workplaces should immediately dispose of any hazardous waste, including chemicals or asbestos.

Proper disposal procedures involve double bagging or double wrapping any waste in plastic sheeting with the appropriate hazard warning signs attached. Additionally, hazardous waste should be disposed of in segregated, lockable hazardous waste units until it has been collected by a licensed and registered waste carrier.

Chemical and asbestos exposure are real threats to workplace safety in the U.K. Ensure you play your part to reduce the potential for injury or illness arising from asbestos or chemical use at work. For more information on chemical safety or chemical storage, contact our expert team.

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