SAFETY FIRST: Chemical exposure prevention

by Sara Lovell
Sara Lovell is an Occupational Hygiene Consultant for Workplace Safety and Prevention Services (WSPS) in Southwestern Ontario. She is a Certified Industrial Hygienist and Professional Engineer with over 15 years of experience in health and safety consulting.

Working with companies to identify and assess the risk of exposure to hazardous agents, it’s easy to see that even the best prevention tool will succeed only if employees are engaged and active participants. That’s a challenge for employers. It’s easier to recognize a broom on the floor as a tripping hazard than a fume extractor that isn’t functioning properly.

Canada’s Workplace Hazardous Materials Information System (WHMIS) is our single greatest tool for training employees on how to safely use chemical products. However, a tool is useful only when it’s put to use. If it’s not used? Then people may get sick.

Under the updated WHMIS standard in Ontario for classifying, labelling and communicating information about hazardous products, employers are required to:

  • Ensure hazardous products used in the workplace are properly labelled and accompanied by safety data sheets (SDSs);
  • Train employees on how to use labels and SDSs;
  • Train employees on the hazards and safe use of hazardous products in the workplace;
  • Provide employees with access to up-to-date SDSs and labels;
  • Ensure appropriate control measures are in place to protect employees’ health and safety.

What can be done?

WHMIS training is the first and most critical step. It refers to the site- and job-specific information that covers your workplace’s procedures for chemical storage, handling, safe use, disposal, emergencies, and spills. By law, employers must provide this training, but it should be much more than a legal obligation. You need to ensure that all employees have received WHMIS training and they understand the WHMIS hazard symbols, labels and safety data sheets.

After completing WHMIS education and training, employees should understand the hazards of the product(s) they work with, how to protect themselves from those hazards, what to do in case of an emergency and where to find more information about hazardous products. If conditions at the workplace change or if new information about a hazardous product becomes available, review the content of your WHMIS education and training program.

Make sure employees understand what they’ve learned and how to apply it in their own workspace. If people don’t understand how the chemicals they’re using could affect them – Is it a skin irritant? A cancer-causing agent? – they’re not going to be vigilant about protecting themselves.

Making health and safety a company priority goes a long way in building commitment from leadership and managers. Have senior management talk to employees about the chemicals being used and the controls that are in place. If people see health and safety as a priority, then it becomes their priority.

A good practice would be to start conducting safety talks on chemicals in use. Safety talks can help in reinforcing WHMIS training messages and focus on discussions about the controls in place, how to recognize when they’re not working, and what the emergency response procedures are.

Encouraging employees to bring questions and possible hazards forward to their supervisors has a positive impact on culture. You can cultivate a culture of engagement by encouraging people to actively identify and report chemical hazards and take the proper precautions. The report could be about something as simple as a container that is damaged or improperly labelled. However, make sure managers and supervisors respond to questions on reported hazards effectively and in a timely manner.

By the way, is your joint health and safety committee (JHSC) including questions about chemical safety practices in their inspections? They should be. The idea should not be about testing employees, but rather identifying possible gaps in training and comprehension.

Lastly, don’t forget to share the results of hazard reports with your employees. Include findings, solutions and next steps in the report, so that employees see an effective reporting system in place and know they are being heard.

When all is said and done, it’s important to understand that just because there are chemicals in the workplace, they’re not necessarily going to hurt us. We just need to make the connections between how we’re using the chemicals, what the risks are, and what controls we need to have in order to keep everyone healthy and safe.