Hazardous Substances Demand Your Respect

Depending where you work and the substances you handle, you may be at risk of accidental poisonings, chemical burns or suffocation. Knowing and following the right precautions can help keep you safe. These are some of the hazards you may encounter:

  • Asphyxiants. Chemicals that displace or dilute oxygen (breathable air) can cause suffocation when present in very large quantities (such ass carbon dioxide and nitrogen)

  • Carcinogens. Chemicals that can cause cancer after many years if you breathe them or absorb them through your skin. (Examples: asbestos, radon, vinyl chloride and benzene.)

  • Compressed gases. Substances often stored in cylinders under high pressure. If the cylinder is dropped and gas escapes, the cylinder can explode, spin or take off like a rocket, knocking down people or walls.

  • Corrosives. Acids or alkaline substances that can penetrate or burn through the skin. (Examples: nitric, sulfuric or hydrochloric acid, and sodium hydroxide.)

  • Flammables. Liquids, vapors or gases that can catch fire or explode when exposed to a flame, an operating electrical instrument, or even a simple static spark. (Examples: methane and propane.)

  • Teratogens. Chemicals that can lead to birth defects. (Examples: isotretinoin, excess vitamin A, alcohol and thalidomide.)

  • Toxic chemicals. Substances that can damage the body's organs when they're inhaled, swallowed or absorbed through the skin. (Examples: lead, cadmium and pesticides.)

Safety musts

To find out what you're working with, and how to work safely with it, talk to your supervisor:

  • Read the employer's Material Safety Data Sheet. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) requires your employer to have a sheet for each chemical in use.

  • Get the facts. OSHA rules require employers to give appropriate training to any worker who uses hazardous chemicals.

  • Get training. Learn about the chemicals you're working with, how to handle them, how to use the right personal protective equipment and how to respond to emergencies.

  • Always read the label. The label, for example, will tell you if the substance is flammable, corrosive or carcinogenic. It also will state whether you need to wear a respirator or gloves or work under a chemical hood.

  • Wear protective equipment. You may need a respirator, hardhat, steel-toed shoes, gloves, splash goggles or face shield.

  • Learn to use emergency equipment. That might include eyewash stations or deluge showers. Learn how to activate emergency alarms in the event of a fire, spill or other chemical release.