Personal Protective Equipment

Safety and PPE when working with chemicals

Safely Working with Chemicals

How to avoid chemical exposure, eliminate hazards and manage safety with PPE? Working with chemicals cause numerous short and long term health and safety hazards. These include organ damage and cancer, respiratory, skin and eye irritation and potential explosion, fire and smoke related injuries.

Chemicals are apparent and exposed to people when they inhale vapours, dusts, fumes or gases. Absorption through the skin may also be a significant source of exposure, according to Comcare. Moreover, ingestion is also a possible exposure source.

Chemical hazard include skin irritants, carcinogens or respiratory sensitisers. Vehicle exhaust, cigarette smoke, paints and paint removers, batteries, degreasers, pesticides and certain building products are some sources.

Symptoms may be immediate or it may be decades before the ill health effects are evident.

Short Term Exposure Symptoms:

Chemical Exposure

Potential Immediate Symptom

Respiratory tract exposure Headache, nose and throat irritation, dizziness and disorientation.
Eye exposure Burning, itching and watering of the eyes.
Skin exposure Skin dryness, blistering, redness, rashes, and itching.

Long Term Exposure Symptoms:

On the other hand, long term low-level chemical exposure can damage the nervous and immune systems, impair reproductive function and lead to cancer and organ-specific damage.

In the case of carcinogens such as asbestos or wood dust and formaldehyde, the incidence of cancer increases with higher exposure levels.

Furthermore, many common ototoxic chemicals found in paints, thinners, degreasers, glues and engine exhausts can also damage the auditory nerve or inner ear. To illustrate, this can cause hearing loss, tinnitus, deafness and vertigo.


Protecting Workers From Chemical Exposure:

As with all workplace hazards, using the hierarchy of control, everyone can promote chemical safety. Firstly, it starts with eliminating the hazard, substituting it with a safer version, isolating it, using engineering controls, administrative controls. Then using chemical protective clothing (PPE) as a last line of defence.

Before implementing control measures, first perform a hazard and risk assessment, including analysis of a chemical’s safe data sheet (SDS). Thereupon, suppliers of chemicals – including distributors, on-sellers and wholesalers – are required to provide an SDS with hazardous chemicals.

Safely working with chemicals heirarchy of control

Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for chemicals

While PPE should only be relied upon as a last line of defence, its use is often essential when working with chemicals and required to supplement higher level control measures.

PPE for chemical handling includes, but may not be limited to overalls, aprons, footwear, gloves, chemical resistant glasses, face shields and respirators.

Appropriate chemical safety PPE must be selected and used specifically for the hazardous chemical(s) in question. In addition, it must be a suitable size and fit. Workers should maintain, wear and use it correctly.

For example, when choosing appropriate chemical-resistant gloves that provide the best protection against a certain chemical, be aware that some gloves may be resistant to some chemicals but not others.

Furthermore, the effectiveness of PPE – when working with chemicals or any other hazard – relies on workers using it correctly. Dexterity and clear vision are essential as is training on how to fit and use PPE properly.

In gist, these are other control measures businesses should consider when managing health and safety risks. Measures that pertain to using, handling, generating and storing hazardous chemicals include but are not limited to:

  • Providing workers information, training, instruction and supervision.
  • Clearly labelling chemicals with warnings and safety signs
  • Maintaining a hazardous chemical register and manifest
  • Identifying any risk of chemicals reacting and ensuring their stability
  • Ensuring workplace exposure standards for hazardous chemicals are not exceeded
  • Providing health monitoring to workers (if relevant)
  • Providing a spill containment system if necessary
  • Obtaining the current SDS from the manufacturer, importer or supplier of the chemical.
  • Controlling ignition sources and providing fire protection and firefighting equipment along with emergency and safety equipment

For more information see Safe Work Australia’s managing risks of hazardous chemicals in the workplace code of practice.


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