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Corrosive chemicals or corrosives are substances that damage or destroy materials they come into contact with, including body tissues and even metal. Corrosives are generally either acids or bases. Acids can be organic, like formic acid or phenol, or they can be inorganic, like sulphuric or hydrochloric acids while corrosive bases are inorganic and include things like ammonia and sodium hydroxide.

Other substances can be corrosive as well, including oxidizing agents like chlorine or bromine, dehydrating agents like calcium oxide or phosphorous pentoxide and other compounds such as tin chloride or potassium chromate. It is always best to check Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) and labels before using any new materials, if uncertain of their corrosive properties.

The hazards of corrosive chemicals

Especial care should be taken when working with and storing corrosive chemicals. Damage can begin as soon as the chemicals touch any surface and can lead to some rather nasty ailments, if exposure is prolonged or left untreated. The concentration or strength of the corrosive, as well as the duration of contact, will determine the extent of the injuries caused. Some corrosive chemicals are also toxic and can contribute to other health issues, if proper precautions aren’t taken.

If corrosives come into contact with the eyes, they can cause anything from severe irritation to scarring or blindness. Inhaling corrosive vapours can irritate and burn the lining of the nose, throat, windpipe and lungs; and swallowing corrosives can burn everything they touch, from the mouth to the stomach. Skin contact is most common and the effects can range from irritation and dryness to severe damage at the point of contact. It can also lead to someone becoming sensitised to a chemical or group of chemicals, cause systemic or organ damage, or have a combination of these effects.

Many corrosives will destroy metal, which can lead to damaged containers, equipment, building components and even installations, if they are made from unsuitable materials. The danger of corrosion is greatest when stronger corrosives and/or higher temperatures are involved. Not only that, hydrogen is often created when corrosives dissolve metal, which is highly flammable and could explode if ignited.

After considering all the potential hazards, it’s easy to see how critically important it is to handle and store corrosive chemicals correctly.

Handling corrosive chemicals safely

Before handling any containers of corrosives, always check they are not damaged first, as they could leak. If the chemicals are delivered in large metal drums, it is best to move them using specially designed drum cradles, rather than by hand, which can be both difficult and dangerous. Alternatively, special carboy caddies can be used for large bottles of corrosives or safety bottle carriers for smaller ones, which can be obtained from most laboratory suppliers.

Smaller amounts of corrosive liquids (up to 19 litres) can be carried, stored and dispensed from self-sealing, portable containers, made from high-density polyethylene. A spring-mounted spout cap closes automatically, when it is no longer being poured or when dropped, and they can also open automatically when vapour pressure builds up, to prevent rupture.

Always use Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)

Skin contact, both direct and indirect, should always be avoided. Wearing protective gloves, boots, aprons, hoods and other clothes that are made from materials that can resist damage by the chemical in question is crucial. Equally important is ensuring the eyes and face are protected, and that any vapours, fumes, dusts or mists emitted are not inhaled.

Determining the correct items of PPE to use for a particular job is fundamental to working with corrosives safely. However, it should only ever be used as an additional measure and should not take the place of proper engineering controls or safety protocols. The MSDS supplied with the corrosive you are using should provide guidance for the necessary items of PPE. If in doubt, always consult a health and safety professional, who knows how to evaluate the hazards and implement risk controls.

Storing corrosives safely

Corrosives should always be stored in an appropriate corrosive chemical storage cabinet, complete with specialised spill protection / bunding that caters for the specific requirements of the corrosive chemical. This is so any leaks are captured and retained, preventing injury and environmental damage. Bunding used in a corrosive storage cabinet is largely made from polypropylene or polyethylene. A poly liner can be fitted over epoxy coated steel bunding found in regular bunded chemical storage, so it can be used to store corrosives. As the vapours from corrosives can also be extremely corrosive, it is recommended that they are stored in all plastic or plastic laminate cabinets, specially designed for corrosive chemicals, with spill trays integrated into the base. Extraction should be considered to remove corrosive vapours. This will reduce damage to the corrosive chemical storage unit and reduce risk of injury through inhalation of vapours.

Stay informed to stay safe

To ensure safety when working with corrosives, it’s important that yourself and your team are committed to keeping up-to-date with COSHH safety legislations and continuously evaluate how corrosive chemicals are being managed in the workplace. For more information on ensuring safe corrosive storage in the workplace, get in touch with the expert team at Safety Storage Systems.