Avoiding Chemical Exposure in the Workplace

Avoiding Chemical Exposure in the Workplace

Did you know that each year, roughly 50,000 workers die from the long-term effects of chemical exposure in the workplace? Sometimes, these types of accidents are unavoidable.

But, more often than not, they can be prevented by following proper workplace practices. Unfortunately, keeping track of all of these practices can be a challenge.

That’s why we made this guide. In it, we’ll go over everything you need to know about chemical exposure and how to avoid it.

That way, you can keep your employees safe no matter what type of industry they’re in. Let’s get started!

Common Types of Chemicals In the Workplace

It doesn’t matter if you’re a construction worker, healthcare employee, or a lifeguard.

There’s a high chance that there are potentially dangerous chemicals found in your workplace. Some of the common ones include:

  • Ammonia
  • Asbestos
  • Arsenic
  • Cadmium
  • Chlorine
  • Formaldehyde
  • Lead
  • Hydrogen peroxide
  • Mercury
  • Nickel
  • Nitric acid
  • Nitrous oxide
  • Ozone
  • Silica

If you want a full list of the commercial chemicals and safety information related to them, check out this CDC guide here. And remember that not all of these chemicals are inherently dangerous.

After all, we swim in pools with chlorine and disinfect things with hydrogen peroxide. Ultimately, the hazard level will depend on the concentration of the chemical. 

Possible Chemical Exposure Effects

The specific health effects will depend on factors like the type of chemical, the concentration, and the duration of exposure.

That being said, some of the common short-term and long-term effects of chemical exposure include things like:

  • Poisoning
  • Cancer
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Headaches
  • Skin rashes
  • Chemical burns
  • Birth defects
  • Nervous system disorder
  • Lung disorders
  • Kidney disorder
  • Liver disorders
  • Allergic reactions

It’s also important to note that some of the health effects can be changed or updated.

One example of this is asbestos. Before the carcinogenic effects of asbestos were discovered, employees would often work with it without using PPE.

However, once reports started coming back of the long-term effects, the information and chemical handling were updated.

That’s why it’s important to stay up-to-date on the latest research associated with chemicals and safety data sheets. 

How Do Chemicals Enter the Body?

There are a variety of ways for chemicals to enter the body. The most common way is for them to be inhaled or breathed in through the lungs.

However, it’s also possible for them to be absorbed through skin contact. This is true for both direct contact (getting it on your skin) and indirect contact (getting it on your clothing).

Next, there’s ingestion. This is when the chemicals get on your food, drink, or cigarettes, then you consume them. Lastly, there’s injection.

This type of transmission is less common, but it’s still something to be aware of. It occurs when a sharp object, like a needle, has the chemical on it and punctures the skin.

It’s most common in the healthcare industry when shots and syringes are commonplace.

It’s important to note that regardless of how the chemical enters the body, it’s distributed the same way: through the bloodstream. From there, it can go on to affect any major organ system found in the body. 

OSHA’s Pyramid For Controlling Exposure

The first step to avoiding chemical exposure in the workplace is to follow OSHA’s hierarchy of chemical controls. You can think of this system of methods as a pyramid.

The bottom part of the pyramid contains the least effective methods of controlling exposure, like PPE (personal protective equipment). Meanwhile, the top part of the pyramid contains the most effective methods of controlling exposure, like eliminating the chemical from your workplace entirely.

It’s important to note that PPE is still a vital part of chemical control. It’s just considered not as effective because it puts the responsibility on the worker to wear them.

In this section, we’ll be taking a closer look at the different parts of this hierarchy of control, starting with the most effective: elimination or substitution. 


The best way to control chemical exposure is to find a safer alternative or eliminate the usage of the chemical. By getting rid of the chemical at the source, you guarantee that your employees aren’t exposed to it.

Sometimes this method simply isn’t possible. But OSHA makes it fairly simple by providing a toolkit for transitioning to safer chemicals. The best part is that often these transitions have other benefits besides just improved safety.

Depending on the specific chemical, this can include cost savings, improved efficiency, industry leadership, and corporate stewardship. 

Engineering Controls

After elimination or substitution, the next best control practice is engineering controls.

These are physical changes that you as an employer make to your workplace to reduce risk. Some popular types of engineering controls include things like:

  • Installing fume hoods
  • Changing the process to minimize exposure to the chemicals
  • Isolating or enclosing areas that contain the chemicals
  • Switching to wet methods when working with chemicals that produce a lot of dust
  • General dilution ventilation

Implementing these engineering controls can be expensive. But, at the end of the day, it’s worth it.

Not only are you reducing the risk of exposure, but you’re also prioritizing employee safety and reducing the likelihood of a lawsuit. 

Administrative and Work Practice Controls

Administrative and work practice controls are considered slightly less effective because they require both workers and employers to do something.

That being said, it’s a lot better than doing nothing. This type of control can include things like rotating job assignments and adjusting certain groups’ work schedules.

That way, not one of your employees is overexposed to a certain chemical because of their job responsibilities. 

Personal Protective Equipment

For many workers, personal protective equipment is the first line of defense against chemical exposure. Full PPE includes clothing protection, respiratory protection, gloves, and eye protection (like goggles).

Not only should you provide your employees with personal protective equipment, but you should also make strict policies for wearing them.

That way, they’re at least partially protected in the event of exposure. 

Employer Tips For Avoiding Chemical Exposure

If you’re following OSHA’s policies when it comes to controlling chemicals, you’re already off to a good start in terms of protecting your employees.

But, if you’re serious about avoiding chemical exposure, you can do other things to minimize risk. In this section, we’ll be going over some additional tips for preventing a potential disaster for your business. 

Proper Training

One of the number one causes of chemical exposure in the workplace is new employees with little to no training. Since these people aren’t familiar with how to handle certain chemicals, it’s easy for them to make potentially catastrophic mistakes.

The first step to preventing this is to put a robust training program in place. At the bare minimum, this should include a written and video portion that ends in a test.

However, if you’re serious about it, then you should consider classroom training. That way, you’re positive that your employees are paying attention.

After an employee finishes training, avoid throwing them right into roles that require them to handle the chemical. Instead, put them with a more experienced employee.

That way, they can watch how to do things properly in person. Remember that there’s a big difference between reading about something and doing it.

So, a mentorship program can ensure that they have a good grasp on things before proceeding on their own. 

Labels for Chemical Substances

When manufacturers create or import chemical substances, they’re required by law to create labels and safety data sheets. We’ll go more into safety data sheets in the next section.

For now, we’ll focus on the labels. The information on the label should convey important information about the chemical.

This info is internationally consistent thanks to the Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labelling of Chemicals (or GHS). Labels should include all of the following:

  • Hazard pictograms
  • Signal words
  • Hazard statements
  • Precautionary statements

If you want to learn more about this system of classification, then visit this resource.

As an employer, you should make sure that the labels on your chemicals are visible at all times. If they’re covered or damaged, then you should dispose of them immediately. 

Safety Data Sheets for Chemical Substances

You can think of safety data sheets as a more in-depth version of labels.

These data sheets contain 16 different sections related to the proper usage and safety of the chemical substance. These documents contain lots of helpful information like:

  • First-aid information
  • Storage requirements
  • Handling requirements
  • PPE information
  • Who produced the chemical
  • Associated hazards
  • Composition of the chemical
  • Transportation information
  • Regulatory information

As an employer, you’re legally required to make sure that chemical safety data sheets are accessible for any employees around the substance.

In fact, not only do you need to keep them on hand, but you also need to make sure that they’re up-to-date. If keeping track of all these documents seems like a pain, consider a safety data sheet management service.

With this type of service, you simply forward any SDS document you receive from your supplier to the service provider. Then, they check your distinct database to see whether the SDS is new or if it contains a revision.

Once updated, your employees can access it on their web-based system. This service takes a lot of the stress out of keeping track of your safety data sheets. 

Regular Chemical Inventories

If your business keeps a lot of chemicals onsite, then it’s vital to perform regular chemical inventories. For one thing, keeping excessive amounts of one chemical onsite can be an explosive hazard.

One fire is all it takes for a catastrophic explosion to occur. That’s what happened in Beirut a few years ago. Chemical inventories are also important for making sure that all the substances in your workplace are being stored properly.

It’s a good time to check that the labels and safety data sheets associated with them are all up to date.

Hazmat inventory software is a great way to stay on top of all the chemicals you keep in your workplace. That way, you aren’t forgetting about anything. 

Evacuation Plans

As we mentioned earlier in the article, sometimes chemical exposure is unavoidable. Because of this fact, it’s important to have this type of hazmat protocol in place for when something goes wrong.

Specifically, make sure that you have an evacuation plan that everyone knows about. This plan should include what to do when someone’s exposed, steps to take to prevent further damages, and evacuation routes used to leave the area as soon as possible.

In addition, make sure you include treatment methods for those people who have been exposed. These plans shouldn’t just be taught to the people working around the chemicals.

You should make sure that everyone working on site, whether they’re a secretary or accountant, knows about the evacuation plan. 

Need Help Managing Safety Data Sheets? Use KHA Online-SDS

We hope that this article helped you learn more about avoiding chemical exposure in the workplace. Here at KHA Online-SDS, we believe that proper safety data sheet management is vital for preventing chemical-related accidents.

That’s why we’ve devoted nearly four decades to the SDS market. In that time, our company has taken advantage of technological advances that streamline the safety data sheet management process.

So, if you’re ready for software and services that will make operations for your company much safer, then contact us today

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