What your workers absorb or inhale on the job could hurt them. Learn the risks and the precautions to take.
Your jobsite safety talks undoubtedly address topics like fall protection, equipment safety, PPE and lockout/tagout procedures. But when was the last time you talked about potentially harmful chemicals on the job site?
Keep your workers safe by teaching them which chemicals to worry about and how to minimize their exposure.
Identify hazardous chemicals
Walk your job site and list any potential hazardous chemical exposures. They may include:
- Carbon monoxide
- Welding gases such as acetylene and nitrogen
- Solvents (and their vapors) including paint thinners, glue solvents and spot removers
- Fumes formed when metals including lead, zinc and cadmium vaporize during cutting or welding
- Fumes from hot asphalt
- Dusts like crystalline silica (from sand, concrete, mortar or stone), asbestos and lead
- Mists from lubricants, paints and coatings.
Workers could inhale airborne chemicals or absorb chemicals through a cut or puncture wound. They could also ingest them when they drink or eat in a contaminated area.
Know the health risks
Don’t dismiss the damage caused by hazardous chemicals. Exposure can lead to a variety of problems, from mild (eye irritation, skin rash, sore throat) to fatal (liver cancer, kidney damage).
Fumes from asphalt, for example, can cause headache, skin rash, fatigue, reduced appetite, throat and eye irritation, cough and skin cancer. Metal fumes from welding can cause an illness known as metal fume fever.
Solvents can wreak a variety of physical woes. Here’s what some may do, immediately or over time, if the exposure is great enough:
Aromatic hydrocarbons. These flammable solvents, used to dissolve rubber, plastics and paint, can cause severe skin irritation and sleepiness. Benzene is very hazardous and can cause anemia and leukemia. Toluene, found in some paints, can affect judgment and reflexes, contributing to accidents.
Chlorinated hydrocarbons. These chemicals, found in nonflammable solvents and degreasers, can cause skin irritation and drowsiness. Some, such as carbon tetrachloride and trichloroethylene, can potentially damage the liver and kidneys and/or cause cancer.
Butadiene. Used in cements for plastic pipes, it can irritate the eyes and mucous membranes. Contact with skin can cause frostbite and burns. Inhalation of large concentrations can lead to a coma or death
Epoxy resins and polyurethanes. If you’re using a product to glue down carpet or tile, seal seams, prime a hard floor or join plastic pipes, it might contain a chemical that can sensitize the skin and lungs, causing shortness of breath and asthma-like lung reactions long term.
Take proper precautions
To limit workers’ exposure to hazardous chemicals:
- Provide them with the necessary PPE: respirators with the correct filters, protective clothing, gloves and safety goggles.
- Ensure work areas have the proper ventilation and exhaust systems.
- Practice safe chemical handling policies. For example, never store chemicals and food in the same refrigerator.
Keep on site and periodically review the safety data sheet (SDS) for each chemical, which includes information on first aid treatment. To be prepared for a hazardous chemical emergency, have handy a first aid kit that contains essentials like eye wash, eye covering, burn dressing and cold packs, as well as contact numbers for emergency care providers.
Include discussions about reducing the risks of hazardous chemicals as part of workers’ safety training.
For detailed listings of construction site chemical hazards and recommendations for controlling them, check out OSHA’s Health Hazards Workbook.
Freelance writer Mary Lou Jay writes about business and technical developments in a variety of industries. She has been covering residential and commercial construction for more than 25 years.