Imagine you are the safety officer of your chemical company, and one of the operators told you this question: “We work with chemicals. How do you know the company is safe and the chemicals won’t make us sick?” If you know your job intimately and you’re passionate about safety, you can readily answer the question.
The truth is you don’t have to be a safety officer or a supervisor to provide the right answer. Anyone working in hazardous waste disposal, any chemical plant or other manufacturing facility are expected to possess the minimum knowledge of the hazards at his workplace.
But if an employee does not know these hazards, how can he know them? This is where a hazard communication program enters the scene.
Hazard communication covers lots of grounds. It’s talking about all the physical, chemical and health hazards in the workplace. Some questions that must be addressed are: What are the hazards? How can an employee protect himself? What should an employee do in case of accident or injury?
So if there is no such program at your company and you want to set one, here are five basic things you need to have.
Many companies use ISO 9000 and related standards for documenting work processes. At its core, this standard says “Write what you do, do what you write.” Work processes are written down, and the documented processes are then followed. Having steps written down ensures consistency on how employees do their work.
The premise applies to a hazard program too. Having the program in written form erases ambiguities and misinterpretations. Some of the things that must be documented are:
The specific hazards in every area of the facility;
Location of MSDS (material data sheets) and other hazard information;
Training on the hazards in the workplace; and
A comprehensive list of chemicals (and their quantities) in each working area.
The documented program and procedures, along with the files of MSDS (more on this in the next section) and the chemical list must be readily accessible to every employee.
A chemical’s material safety data sheet, or MSDS, must be both available and used.
Safety data sheets are useless if none (but the boss) can only access them, so every employee must be aware of the nearest location of the MSDS files. It’s good practice that several copies are distributed across the facility—like one folder in the laboratory, another in the control room, and a third one in the warehouse.
It is also equally important that employees know how to use them. It makes no sense to have the complete sheets if employees are not trained to use them. (We’ll tackle training a bit later.)
The MSDS contains valuable information. Included are the chemical’s name and nature (“Is it flammable or neutral?”), storage conditions (“Is it okay to store it outdoors?”), protection requirements (“Do you need a mask or a full-body chemical suit?”) and first-aid measures (“What to do if you got skin contact?”).
For this reason, every chemical handled in your facility must have a corresponding MSDS. Also, ensure that MSDS files are up-to-date. For instance, the acid you’re using now may be different in strength to the one used last year, so the current MSDS must be relevant to that specific chemical form.
While these data sheets are valuable, it’s better not to rely on them alone. Remember the documented work processes from the previous section? These documents must also contain some of the essential information from the MSDS to be readily used by the employee. Information on personal protective gears and cautions are helpful if they are included already in the procedures. (3).Labeling system
On a quick glance, signs and labels provide immediate information on the chemical in front of you. For instance, when seeing a fire symbol on a drum, in your mind, you are already alerted that it contains flammable content and must not be brought near sources of heat.
A good label must carry the chemical’s name as its proper ID. This must be consistent with the chemical’s name in its MSDS. It could cause confusion and uncertainty if the content of that drum is labeled as “dizzying liquid” while the MSDS says “ammonia”. Also, do not label a container as “acid” when there are lots of acid types in your inventory.
Furthermore, put an immediate warning about the physical or health hazards if necessary. Indicate “do not inhale” if the chemical can cause instant dizziness or other illnesses.
Some chemical labels have hazard ratings, particularly if the NFPA (National Fire Protection Rating) system is applied. This scheme is simple to use and comes in the form of a diamond symbol. The sign is divided into four sections: blue for health, red for flammability, yellow for reactivity, and white for a special category.
These four categories are rated independently from 1 to 4. In the case of red section, 1 is given for a material that does not burn (like water) while 4 is for materials that readily burn (like propane gas).
The NFPA system is not the only one used in the industry. Depending on what suits your company’s needs, you can use other schemes like HMIS, GHS or NPCA.
Employees need to undergo training to gain awareness and knowledge on the hazards and protective measures BEFORE they handle the chemical. They must also be adept at knowing how to interpret and use the MSDS. Now and then, refresher training has to be conducted to ensure knowledge retention.
Contractors and visitors of the facility must also undergo briefing if they too are entering the facility or will be handling chemicals. If they’re bringing their own chemicals, they must have the safety data sheets with them.