Chemicals, including hazardous ones, are very present in our workplaces, in our homes and in our general environment. Emergencies involving hazardous chemicals range from human exposure to chemical spills, toxic vapor releases, fires and explosions.
Exposure to toxic chemicals can occur through inhaling, ingesting or splashes in the eye or on the skin. Harmful effects include burns, blindness, poisoning, diseases and even death. Chemical spills, fires and explosions also damage equipment and destroy property.
When misused, chemicals can cause serious injury or death. In some cases, the damage is immediate, in other cases it causes problems years later. Certain chemicals are toxic or poisonous. Some chemicals are corrosive and can cause burning or irritation to the skin or eyes. Others chemicals are flammable. There are reactive chemicals which can explode if they are shaken or mixed with the wrong substance – and that wrong substance can even be plain water.
Cigarette smoking increases the total exposure to harmful chemicals that workers receive on the job. More important, it can act in combination with workplace chemicals to raise the level of damaging health effects. In addition, harmful health effects can occur from smoking a cigarette that is contaminated with chemicals or other substances used or produced on the job. Nonsmokers may also develop health problems from breathing in smoke from co-workers’ cigarettes.
According to the American Lung Association, many workers are exposed to a wide variety of airborne contaminants on the job such as dusts, welding fumes, gases, solvent vapors and mists. If present in large enough amounts, these contaminants can be breathing hazards.
Inhaling dirty workroom air can irritate the respiratory system and cause sneezing, coughing, chest tightness or difficulty in breathing. Prolonged exposure over months or years can lead to chronic long-term lung diseases such as chronic bronchitis, emphysema, asthma and asbestosis. To prevent symptoms from starting and lung diseases from developing, exposure to airborne contaminants must be reduced or eliminated.
The first step in reducing your exposure to breathing hazards at work is to recognize that they are present. Although it is your employer’s legal responsibility to inform you of both general and specific hazards connected with your job and to provide you with a safe and healthful workplace, you can assist with this effort. Be on the alert for unsafe and unhealthful working conditions and report problems to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), and ask for an on-site inspection. This can be done so that the worker’s identity is not revealed to the employer. A listing of OSHA offices is available on their web site at http://www.osha.gov.