How well protected are your employees from carcinogens and other health hazards? Like it or not, modern processes and work still require chemicals and substances that can adversely affect the health of our people who are exposed to these known occupational health exposures. Feasible alternatives just don’t exist. Therefore, our responsibility is to create procedures and processes that minimize their exposures, train them, and ensure they work safely.
Routes of Entry
When evaluating employee exposures to health hazards, always consider the routes of entry, including:
- Skin absorption
Some substances are hazardous through multiple routes of entry. The only way to know for sure is to review the safety data sheets for all hazardous substances used in your processes.
Health Hazards of Note
The health hazards of some substances are particularly noteworthy. They include:
1. Respirable Crystalline Silica
This one is currently drawing a lot of attention due to OSHA’s new rule on it. Despite delays, OSHA’s enforcement of this rule in construction began in October 2017. It is found in many materials used in construction. Crystalline silica-containing dust is the main concern here, as it is fine enough to be inhaled and enter the lungs. It is classified as a Group One Human Carcinogen. Even when it does not cause cancer, it can lead to severe lung damage, silicosis, compromise the immune system, cause chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and kidney disease that can lead to kidney failure.
Once commonly used as fire insulation, this substance is also a carcinogen, and has been linked to a relatively rare cancer known as mesothelioma. Small fibers of asbestos can be inhaled, leading to lung cancer and lung damage. Skin contact and ingestion can also have adverse health effects.
Another substance that was commonly used in the past, lead is most commonly a concern in paints, glazing, and pipes. It is a category 2 carcinogen, meaning that it is believed to cause cancer in humans. While this is not known for certain, it has been linked to other serious health hazards. It can damage the kidneys, blood-forming systems, central nervous system, and digestive tract with enough exposure. It is believed to damage fertility.
4. Hexavalent Chromium
This is a known carcinogen, and has other serious health hazards. This is commonly found in Portland Cement, but is also associated with welding galvanized and stainless steel. Besides causing cancer, it is also known to cause serious, permanent damage to the eyes and skin due to chemical burns. It also can irritate the respiratory tract.
This list is by no means exhaustive. Employers must be aware of the health hazards that employees are exposed to, and ensure that employees are properly protected.
Are Your Employees Protected?
Despite the known hazards of these occupational health exposures, they continue to be irreplaceable in many processes. This means that the best levels of employee protections are not feasible, since employee exposures cannot be eliminated, and there are no substitution options. Therefore, we must ensure that engineering controls, procedures, training, and personal protective equipment are fully implemented and enforced to protect employees.