Employees working with hazardous chemicals risk exposure to corrosive or toxic splashes, temperature extremes, and harmful fumes. The dangers can be immediate or long-term, with symptoms of exposure or ingestion not always readily apparent. An important safeguard when working with hazardous chemicals is appropriate Personal Protective Equipment (PPE).
A combination of the right equipment protects the respiratory system, eyes, skin, and limbs. However, no single piece can protect against all hazards and PPE must be treated as a last line of defence, not an alternative to an integrated safety plan that incorporates exposure and spill control, safe chemical storage and clear procedures for handling chemicals.
What is Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)?
PPE is divided into four main categories which correspond to the risk presented and the level of protection required.
Choosing the right protection when working with chemicals
Because there is no one-size-fits-all PPE equipment, it is vital to select the appropriate protection for the hazard in question. Any equipment provided should conform to international standards, carrying a CE mark for example.
Exposure to contaminated air can cause immediate catastrophic consequences, as well as slow, less obvious damage over the long term. The primary safeguard is a well-ventilated working environment. Where additional protection is deemed necessary, respirators remove airborne particles, chemicals and gases from the air supply. They can range from disposable filtering masks to Airline respirators and self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA). In some cases, medical evaluation is required before using breathing apparatus.
Eye and Face Protection
Employees should have access to eye and face protection in the form of safety glasses, goggles and face shields. Where there is significant risk of chemical splash or highly reactive chemicals, a full face shield is recommended.
Working around hazardous chemicals can involve the risk of toxic or corrosive substances penetrating the skin, or toxic chemicals being slowly absorbed through the skin. Since not all glove materials offer uniform protection, with some resistant to certain chemicals only, refer to the relevant Material Safety Data Sheet for guidance. Lab coats or overalls should have elasticated cuffs and buttons or snaps for easy removal and no item of lab protective clothing should be removed from the workplace.
Limitations of PPE
PPE in the workplace is only a last line of defence, not a solution within itself for eliminating hazards. The correct hierarchy of control mandates (in order):
Only once these steps have been achieved should PPE be considered as an adequate safety measure.
Likewise, providing the equipment is just the first step. A thorough, approved PPE certification and testing schedule must be enforced, and all staff trained regularly in the appropriate procedures for using PPE. Bear in mind, too, that PPE presents its own hazards if staff do not take into account restricted vision, movement, hydration and communication during use.
Safe deployment of PPE must always start with a thorough COSHH risk assessment of the workplace in question to evaluate the presence of hazardous chemicals and materials. Where possible, these hazards should be removed, substituted or isolated. Once a robust chemical safety plan is in place, PPE enables workers to perform their duties with minimal risk to their personal safety.
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