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Worker wellness: Chemical safety and compliance


October 1, 2018

Editor’s note: This story is part of a series of stories addressing the common types of injuries that can strike healthcare workers, and how you as the safety professional can help prevent them.

Chemicals of all kinds are a daily part of life in any workplace, and healthcare clinics are no exception. From the hand soap used in your restrooms to the formaldehyde used in your labs to preserve specimens, healthcare workers are constantly under the risk of exposure to chemicals that could harm, maim, or even kill them.

Despite their inherent mission of healing others, healthcare workers still are among the most commonly injured employees—a fact that has not escaped OSHA. According to OSHA’s latest statistics, in 2010 the healthcare and social assistance industry reported more injury and illness cases than any other U.S. private industry sector: about 653,900 cases. Most of them stemmed from issues resulting from bloodborne pathogens and biological hazards, chemical and drug exposures, respiratory hazards, ergonomic hazards from lifting and repetitive tasks, workplace violence, lab hazards, and exposure to radioactive material and x-ray hazards.

It’s your job as the safety professional in your facility to minimize risks and make sure that employees have as little exposure to harmful chemicals as possible. In situations where it’s impossible to eliminate exposure—such as with cleaning and disinfecting chemicals or those needed to treat patients—it’s imperative that employees are properly trained on the handling of those substances, the inherent dangers involved, and what first aid steps to take should there be a dangerous spill or exposure.

Here’s a list of tips that you can use to help keep your workers safe when they are dealing with hazardous chemicals.

You mean you still aren’t HazCom-compliant? If the answer is no—more than three years after the deadline to comply with the changes to OSHA’s Hazard Communication standard, specifically the worker training and container labeling required under the Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labeling of Chemicals (GHS)—then you should consider yourself lucky you haven’t been visited by an inspector and fined.

Get to work, now. OSHA required not only workplaces but chemical manufacturers to replace the old material safety data sheets (MSDS) with the new safety data sheets (SDS) by June 2015. The SDS identifies a chemical and the hazards associated with it. It is divided into 16 sections, each dedicated to various information about the chemical: firefighting, first aid, storage, hazards, and what to do in the event of exposure. In addition, the SDS system includes eight visual guides to workplace hazards, called pictograms; they consist of a black hazard symbol on a white background with a red border and are designed to be universally identified at a glance by workers who speak any language. The pictograms clearly identify hazards such as flames, carcinogens, corrosives, explosives, and environmental hazards.

These changes are good for your workers’ safety, as it makes it much easier for your employees to identify the hazardous chemicals in your facility and to quickly deliver first aid should there be a worker exposure.

If OSHA inspectors come knocking, one of the first things they will ask to see will be your updated SDS forms and whether your employees know where to find them. Many safety officials have already begun keeping full lists of the chemical inventories in their clinics, calling vendors and manufacturers to request new SDS forms, and keeping very detailed records of their correspondence with these companies; OSHA inspectors, if they show up, will be verifying your due diligence.

Schedule a weekly in-service training if you’re not already holding one, download some of the pictograms from OSHA’s website (osha.gov), and have a scavenger hunt with your employees to let them hunt down the new labels on the inventory in your facility. Let them check out any new SDS sheets, and quiz them to make sure they know first aid procedures for, say, the bleach underneath the sink in the break room.

For ideas on worker training, as well as useful tools such as an online incident tracker and an SDS searching tool, check out www.safety.blr.com.

Take an inventory. Chances are that you don’t know all of the dangerous chemicals lurking in your facility. Chances are even better that you have chemicals on-site that you didn’t know were hazardous. Think about it: When was the last time you considered something as commonplace as Windex®, laundry detergent, or hairspray as hazardous? Believe it or not, they are. Some people are allergic to ingredients in them, they can be caustic if ingested, and hairspray can ignite or even explode if exposed to an open flame (think Bunsen burners).

This isn’t to say that you have to remove these substances from your workplace, only that you and your employees should be aware of their existence. Laundry soap and chemicals should be stored properly, away from heat and in a manner that will prevent accidental spills. Next, make sure you have SDSs on hand and available (put them in a binder for safekeeping).

You might not need an SDS on-site for hairspray, especially if someone doesn’t bring it in every day. But there should be policies in place to help maintain employee safety. Just like there should be no eating or drinking in the lab to prevent possible contamination, there should also be no personal products in areas where they can be dangerous. Write up a policy, post it prominently, make sure your employees know it and understand it (make them sign a compliance sheet), and provide lockers so they have an alternate place to store these items.

Insist on proper storage. All it takes is a worker grabbing a hazardous chemical with a loose cap from an overhead cabinet to suffer an eye injury, or worse, a burn to whole parts of the body.

First, don’t store chemicals overhead. It’s ergonomically unsafe to retrieve items from up high. Next, ensure that your chemical storage cabinets are leakproof and fireproof. A wooden cabinet that has been soaked with a spilled chemical could begin leaking, causing exposure to skin and the respiratory system. The same cabinet stored close to a heat source could cause a fire.

Train your staff to wear proper PPE. This has been drilled into your head countless times: If you or your staff members work anywhere near hazardous chemicals, there needs to be proper protective equipment nearby, and everyone needs to know how to use it.

It’s simple, really. If you’re working around blood or chemicals, gloves and goggles are a must, and there needs to be an eyewash station somewhere nearby. If there’s a chance that chemicals could be spilled on someone (think about the loading dock or storage room), then heavy-duty gloves and a lab coat should be added to the mix.

Do your due diligence when choosing products. Just because a product touts itself as able to do a job doesn’t mean it belongs in your facility. Research is always being updated on products, and ingredients that were once considered safe may now be deemed hazardous. Consider the 2016 report from NIOSH, whose researchers reported the results of a health hazard evaluation at a Pennsylvania hospital where an employee reported concerns about health symptoms seemingly related to use of a new disinfection product. The product, which had been introduced to help control hospital-acquired infections, consists of hydrogen peroxide, acetic acid, and peroxyacetic acid. The report did not name the product, but described it as a non-bleach sporicide advertised as a one-step cleaner, disinfectant, and deodorizer.

According to the manufacturer’s SDS, the product requires no PPE when it is diluted with water by an automated dispenser before use. NIOSH researchers found that environmental services employees’ exposures to the hydrogen peroxide and acetic acid in the product were within recommended exposure limits, and that the third ingredient, peroxyacetic acid, was not subject to a limit. However, they speculated that the mixture of hydrogen peroxide and peroxyacetic acid could have contributed to symptoms reported by workers, and existing exposure limits may not be protective against asthma-like symptoms.

If you have a product in your facility that contains that mixture, this is your warning to get rid of it before it makes your workers sick.


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