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Hazardous chemicals in the workplace: What you need to know

by , 18 February 2013
In the past week, there have been more than ten reported chemical spills across the world that have had detrimental effects on the environment and put the health and safety of nearby communities at risk. Many of them caused by company accidents as a result of lax health and safety procedures. How does your company protect staff from hazardous chemicals? And don't think this doesn't apply to you. Studies show that even the soap in your company's bathroom could contain hazardous chemicals you need to protect your employees from.

In Montana, America, a truck spilled about 27 000 litres of a chemical salt used to deice roads into a Yellow stone River tributary when it crashed into a bridge last week, reportsrapidcityjournal.com. 
The effects this chemical spill will have on the health and safety of nearby communities and the environment are sure to be substantial.
But it's not just chemical companies and companies that work with chemical substances that need to be more careful. Your employees' health and safety could be at risk from hazardous chemical substances as well. 
What is a hazardous chemical substance?
'Hazardous Chemical Substances (HCS) are those chemicals present in the workplace that can cause harm to you or the environment,' explains Sven Whittle in the Health and Safety Advisor.
'This includes dust, mixtures, and common materials such as paint, fuel and solvents. It also includes any substance from dishwashing liquids, hand soaps to harmful substances such as caustic soda, chlorine, welding fumes,' says Whittle. 
In fact, any substance that can cause anything from mild itchiness and redness, to full blown dermatitis can be classified as a hazardous chemical substance.
According to the Occupational Health and Safety Act (OHSA), it's your duty to ensure your employees comply with safety regulations when handling or working with hazardous chemical substances. If you don't you could be liable for a fine or imprisonment!
Here's what you need to do to protect your employees when working with hazardous chemicals
The Health and Safety Advisor outlines steps you can take to detect possible chemical hazards in your company or office. You must:
Look for risks to health resulting from chemicals in the workplace; and
Ensure exposure to hazardous agents/chemicals is either prevented or properly controlled. To achieve this, you need to measure the amount of chemicals your employees are exposed to. The most effective way to do this is biological monitoring. You'll do this after you've done a risk assessment so you have a better idea of what risks and hazards you need to control. 
Once you've done a risk assessment, you can control exposure to chemicals by taking the following five steps outlined in the Health and Safety Bulletin:
1. Limit the amount of a hazardous chemical substances used in the workplace; 
2. Limit the number of workers exposed to hazardous chemicals in the workplace; 
3. Limit the amount of time any worker will be exposed in the workplace; 
4. Use a substitute chemical that's less harmful; 
5. Introduce engineering measures to control the exposure (such as ventilation and extraction.).
Don't let hazardous chemicals used for daily tasks like cleaning the office or sterilising equipment put the health and safety of your employees at risk. By knowing what chemicals are used in your office, you'll be able to find ways to protect your employees.  

Check out the Health and Safety Training Manual module on Hazardous Chemical Substances and find out how to meet all your Occupational Health and Safety Act (OHSA) obligations and prevent harmful exposure to hazardous chemical substances (HCS) or face the penalties.

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