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The Top 4 Pathways for Chemical Exposure

By Adrian Bartha
Published: December 9, 2013 | Last updated: May 29, 2017
Key Takeaways

Chemicals, dusts, fumes and other toxic substances in the working environment can enter the bodies of workers in a few key ways

Source: Flickr/euthman

Most workers are unaware that chemicals and other toxic substances could enter the body through the eyes and the skin. The most popular routes that they know - and are aware of - are through the nose and mouth. Here we'll take a look at all these types of exposure and how to prevent them. We'll also examine what do right there in the working scene in times of accidental exposures.

Through the Nose (Inhalation)

When toxic substances enter the human system by way of the nose it's usually in the form of gas or vapor. Upon entering through the nose, these vapors reach the lungs, where they are absorbed into the bloodstream and distributed throughout the body. If the substance is really toxic, the affected individual will show various manifestations, such as discoloration of the skin, difficulty breathing, dizziness, loss of consciousness and behavioral disturbances. The set of clinical manifestations depends on the nature of the toxic substance that was inhaled.


When fumes may be present, the first step is to bring the affected individual away from the site of exposure. The best option may be to go outside the building, where the temperature is relatively cool and where there is free flowing air. The purpose of this first step is to prevent further inhalation of the toxic substance and to allow the lungs to expel it from the body. In whatever scenario, a vehicle must always be ready to transport the affected worker to the nearest hospital.

In terms of prevention, if toxic gas(es) are being produced or used, all workers must be provided with a mask or breathing apparatus. In addition, it should be made clear to all workers that said mask must be worn while inside the work-site. Second, the company must install a monitoring device to measure air quality.

Through the Mouth (Ingestion)

Toxic substances can also be taken in by mouth. This may happen accidentally by contamination of the hands, or by accidental ingestion from an unmarked container. In most cases, the victim should be sent directly to the hospital, although it may be possible to consult a poison control center for more details. Not much can be done at the scene because the affected worker may require a nasogastric tube or induced vomiting as treatment. In both procedures, special skill is needed that only a hospital can provide.

To prevent chemical ingestion, no worker should be allowed to consume food or drink except in approved areas. The drinking water dispenser, plates and utensils should also be kept in a safe and isolated place.

Through the Eyes (Ophthalmic Absorption)

The eyes are another portal of entry for toxic substances. More often than not, these are chemicals used or manufactured in a company, and can occur via vapors, accidental splashing, or transfer of the chemicals from fingers to the eyes. Flushing of the eye may be of benefit, but treatment at the scene often depends on the chemical in question.

In companies and factories where a toxic substance is used or manufactured, proper eye protection should be provided. These should have covered vents or, in some cases, be fully sealed.


Through the Skin (Dermal Absorption)

While the skin is meant to protect the body from the entry of bacteria and other potential invaders, it can also absorb chemicals and other substances that are accidentally splashed or poured on it. In fact, it is the second most common route by which toxic substances could enter the body. To prevent the absorption of substances, exposed skin should be washed immediately. If significant absorption has taken place and the patient shows disturbing symptoms, he or she should be brought to the hospital.

To prevent the skin from coming in contact with toxic substances, workers should be provided with relatively thick gowns and hand gloves that are long enough to cover the entire length of the forearm. Gowns and clothes soiled with chemicals must be changed immediately to reduce exposure to the toxic substance.

Preventing Chemical Exposure

Preventing chemical exposure involves a combined effort using personal protective equipment, and remaining aware of possible pathways.


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Written by Adrian Bartha | Chief Executive Officer

Profile Picture of Adrian Bartha
Adrian Bartha is the CEO of eCompliance, which he joined in 2012 after experiencing first-hand how a workplace incident affected a power and utilities company which he led as a member of the Board of Directors. Previously, Adrian was an investment professional for a $5 billion dollar private equity firm investing in energy, construction, and transportation infrastructure companies across North America. When Adrian is out of the office, he can be found riding his futuristic motorcycle and wearing his RoboCop helmet.
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