If you work with hazardous, corrosive chemicals, it’s essential to take steps to ensure that your employees and colleagues can be kept safe during an emergency. With any luck, you’ll go your entire career without having to deal with an emergency situation; however, it’s important to be well prepared should the unthinkable happen.
By Paul Thorn, MD of Safety-Eyewash.co.uk
In this article, we’ll take a look at emergency eyewash and shower facilities and talk about the importance of staff training. First, here’s a rundown of some of the most common hazardous chemicals.
Corrosive substances in the workplace
The following materials are considered harmful, corrosive substances. While this list is not exhaustive, it should give you an indication of the sorts of chemicals that are included:
● Oxidising agents (e.g. hydrogen peroxide)
● Strong acids
● Strong bases
● Dehydrating substances (e.g. quicklime)
● Alkylating agents (e.g. dimethyl sulphate)
● Organic acid halides (e.g. acetyl iodide)
● Organic halides (e.g. chloroform)
● Certain halogens (e.g. iodine, chlorine, bromine, and fluorine)
● Molten metal
● Certain organic compounds (e.g. carbolic acid)
● Battery acid
● Anhydrous ammonia
● Pesticides, herbicides, insecticides etc.
● Chlorine (bleach)
If you use these substances (or substances like them) in your workplace, then you need to ensure that your workforce have access to emergency decontamination equipment. Workplaces that benefit from the installation of emergency decontamination equipment include the following:
● Industrial laboratories
● University laboratories
● Petrol stations
● Universities, schools and colleges
● Processing plants
● Chemical plants
● Agricultural sites and farms
Location, location, location
In an emergency situation that involves exposure to hazardous chemicals, time is truly of the essence. Once an injurious substance comes into contact with skin, the harm it causes becomes more serious with each passing second; that’s why it’s essential that your emergency equipment is easy to locate during an emergency.
The ANSI Z358.1 regulations, which cover the manufacture, installation and use of safety eye wash equipment and drench showers, state that decontamination must be installed on the same floor as, and no more than a ten-second walk from, the hazardous area. The equipment must also be clearly signposted, and the surrounding area well lit.
The importance of training
Of course, safety equipment is all well and good - but if your staff don’t know how to use it, then it’s as good as useless. Adequate staff training is also mandated in the ANSI regulations. Training should be provided when a new item of equipment is installed, and also whenever a new employee joins your workforce. Training new employees is also an excellent opportunity to provide ‘top-up’ training to the rest of your workforce.
At the outset of training, you should show your employees where the safety equipment is located before walking them along the route they would take to reach it.
Next, ask one worker to lie on the floor close to the hazardous area and shout for help; two others can then come to the aid of their ‘injured’ colleague and help them to the decontamination shower or eye wash unit.
When training your employees on the use of safety eye wash units, it can be useful to have an employee wear a blindfold and attempt to make their way to the eye wash station with the assistance of a colleague; this will help your employees prepare for an emergency situation where the eyesight of the injured party has been compromised.
One major issue surrounding the use of emergency decontamination showers is that the user must remove all of their clothing in order for the treatment to work properly - and yet, the taboo against public nudity can be so powerful that injured workers will remain clothed and risk severe injury rather than strip off in front of their co-workers.
Even if the contamination is mild, the injured party’s clothing can become saturated with the harmful substance and keep it in close contact with their skin - and as we’ve discussed, the damage inflicted by corrosive substances increases substantially over time.
Similarly, many people are averse to ‘making a fuss’ in the workplace. Activating emergency equipment - especially drench showers - can attract a great deal of attention; you’d be surprised at how many people would rather put their lives in danger than risk ‘losing face’ in front of their colleagues.
During training, you should impress upon your workforce the importance of removing hazardous chemicals from the surface of the skin and remind them of the dire consequences of prolonged exposure. These consequences include permanent scarring, disfigurement, damage to nerves, muscle and tendons, severe pain, and even death.
Should I bother?
If all of this sounds like a lot of effort - and expense - then consider this: according to the Health & Safety Executive, some 621,000 British workers suffered an injury in the workplace, and of these, around 200,00 led to three days of absence from work.
A further 152,000 led to seven days of absence.Employee injuries can also lead to court costs, fines and workplace injury compensation, all of which can be extremely costly. Installing emergency decontamination equipment in your workplace doesn’t just fulfil your ethical obligation to your employees - it also makes good economic sense.
Prevention, as they say, is better than cure. Accordingly, you should ensure that your staff are well trained in the handling of hazardous chemicals and all associated machinery and equipment.
Hopefully, they’ll never have to use a drench shower or eye wash station at all.