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Health and the Chemical Industry



Note: This page is not intended to be a comprehensive or exhaustive account of health hazards, risks and means of risk reduction in this particular type of workplace, but is intended to exemplify aspects of the Management of Health and Safety in Workplaces and to assist in education and practical implementation about this. 

Finding hazards in a chemical manufacturing establishment or a similar factory is easy. Many can be readily identified through a simple walk through or even by looking at the factory from outside the gates. It is more difficult to identify all the important hazards and to rank them in terms of risk

Risk assessment in this as in many other workplaces requires critical skills. 

  • Are you assessing the risk to the worker(s) on site at the time of your visit? There may be none on site doing a particular process while you are there. 
  • Therefore how do you go about assessing the risk to production workers? What about the risks for maintenance workers? 
  • How do you determine the product of the likelihood of harm and the severity of harm for any of a number of different circumstances?
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Remember also: 

  • the occupational health and safety implications of a wide range of jobs besides those involved in chemical production, purification, packing and handling, etc. There are drivers, office staff, catering staff, security staff, etc.
  • besides the routine operations which you might be shown, there may be well be research and development functions which you might not see, unusual batch processing, high risk for high volume work which you might not be in a position to assess. 
  • consider the risks to the environment from emissions into the air, from contaminated water, draining away into the public sewers, ground, or other water courses. What about the material that is taken away for disposal? This could range from construction material and mechanical plant debris (piping, asbestos insulation, etc) to unwanted chemicals or their containers. 

The structure of a visit to the chemical industry: 

There are different ways of tackling a visit: 

  • by geography - analogous to the way in which you would visit a house that you are intending to buy; by being shown round systematically (perhaps with emphasis on the nicer parts of the house, and ignoring skeletons in cupboards).
  • by process. Starting with the feed tock and all the way through the various chemical reactions, handling and interventions right through to the packing and dispatch of the final product - but remember that many processes may take place in parallel or at different times. Conducting a visit by process can be very educational but on its own would not necessarily result in a complete assessment. 
  • by theme. The visit could focus on a particular theme eg solvent exposure, noise exposure etc
Some hazards to look out for, and corresponding risks to assess: 

Different categories of chemicals. It is not possible to address all the possible categories of course but some examples will be given

  • Organic solvents are used very extensively to extract and purify other chemicals from natural or manmade sources, as a vehicle within which to carry out reactions, as the reagents in themselves, and as a vehicle or active constituent of many final products. In high enough airborne concentrations most can cause nausea, headache, loss of consciousness and even death. Skin exposure can cause dermatitis through degreasing at least. Many of them are highly inflammable. Some of them have important neurotoxic, carcinogenic or other properties. 
  • Enquire about total turnover of these chemicals in terms of tonnage, look for possible situations in which vapour may be generated in significant amounts, enquire about the airborne concentrations of vapour, determine who may be exposed, when and under what circumstances. Enquire about how the agents are handled and try and make your own observations.

  • Acids and alkalies. These are important reagents for many chemical reactions and purification processes. Most of them are highly corrosive by skin contact, especially by eye contact, but also by inhalation of aerosols. Some such as hydrofluoric acid (used to etch glass) are particularly notorious. Remember that besides their intrinsic hazard, they can and often do generate other hazardous substances in the course of reactions. 
  • Enquire about how the agents are handled and try and make your own observations.

  • Other agents. A categorisation of these would be practically endless and it would be surprising to go to a chemical workplace which only had agents in the above mentioned categories.
  • Enquire about the specific feedstock and output from the plant, and then explore all the steps in between. When you have (if you have) fathomed the complexity of this in production, then consider how much more varied the exposures would be in any research and development and quality control laboratories. 

  • What about non-chemical hazards? Heat, noise, etc. Do not forget these and the very important and ubiquitous issues of manual handling. Remember to address the methods of assessing risks from these hazards.
The attitude and practice of the firm towards risk assessment  

This is a very crucial part of health and safety management which your visit to the workplace must explore:  

  • Try and determine the attitudes of your host/manager/employee to the management of health and safety. 
  • Who are the key people responsible for conducting assessments of risk to health? 
  • What policies exist? 
  • How do they conduct the risk assessments? 
  • What equipment and facilities do they have? 
  • How do they use them?
  • View some of the assessments available, or at least a selection of the observations and the results from which the assessments are made.
  • Consider the relative merit of some devices such as Drager tubes as compared to personal monitoring devices.
Control of risks/risk reduction steps  

Remember the hierarchy of control of risks. Is this practised in the workplace? 

  • What steps have been taken to eliminate or substitute hazardous substances?
  • What steps have been taken to contain, or segregate exposure?
  • What steps have been taken to use local exhaust ventilation where relevant? How effective is it? How well is it monitored?
  • To what degree have workers been consulted, informed and trained in the relevant aspects of health and safety?
  • What about personal protection? Is this overused in circumstances where more appropriate forms of control should have been applied? Is this under used? Is the correct protection being used for the task in hand and hence for the relevant risks to health? How well is the personal protective equipment maintained?

A visit to a chemical industry may be an exercise on its own or it may be a prelude to other forms of learning in the same workplace or elsewhere. In any case, leaving the factory gate is not the end of the  information gathering and learning experience - merely the beginning.