Janitorially Speaking - Knowledge Is Safety
Both domestically and in the workplace, there are dangerous assumptions made about chemical safety. When it comes to your safety and the safety of those around you, you ought to know better – and the means to do so is at hand.
What's the most dangerous place in your house?
Chances are, you believe it's the kitchen. After all, it's probably what you were told at school.
It also makes intuitive sense. The kitchen is full of obvious risks. Sharp knives, steaming kettles, sauces boiling and bubbling in pots, burners so hot they turn red - the hazards are everywhere and you're right to be careful around them.
As dangerous as all those things are, they pale compared to the cupboard under the sink. While that might not sound like a risky spot, it's where most household cleaning solutions are kept. In that cupboard, you might find bleaches, detergents, drain cleaners, as well as a number of substances that seem benign but are riskier than you might realize.
Warning Labels and Fine Print Disclaimers
When was the last time you read the safety information on a box of dishwasher detergent?
Would it even occur to you to do so, or do you simply trust that the products are safe?
Well, it's not. According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health, "Dishwasher detergents are highly corrosive substances that cause potentially life-threatening injuries."
Because these chemicals are purchased from the supermarket shelves, we tend to assume they're inherently safe. And even when we know a product is inherently unsafe, very few of us will read all the safety warnings printed on the packaging.
Unfortunately, that means we're missing out on some crucial information - especially when it's in the fine print. Take, for example, this guidance from a well known domestic drain cleaning product: "May burn eyes, skin and mucous membranes on contact." That's where most people will stop reading - grab a pair of gloves, maybe some eye-protection, and set to work. Except the same paragraph goes on to say "Do not use or mix this product with ammonia, toilet bowl cleaners or other drain openers as hazardous gases may be released and a violent eruption may occur."
There are two things worth noting here. First, the fact that I wouldn't want to bring the components of a "violent eruption" into my house - I have no plans of going viral on YouTube by destroying my kitchen. Second, the "mixing products" guidance. It follows from this that I should store these products away from each other - that's the sensible thing to do.
Then there's the presentation of these warnings. In this particular, the critical safety information is written in small print, all in a single paragraph on the back of the bottle. It doesn't exactly grab your attention - in fact, you might have to squint to take in the information.
Better safety information about the product will be included in its Safety Data Sheet (SDS). The SDS will at the very least specify the health rating, flammability, and handling requirements for the product. While it may not come bundled with the product, it can be found through the household products database from the US Departments of Health and Human Science.
In short, the problem is that we have poorly created labels that provide us incomplete health and safety information. It's even worse in industrial settings, where these chemicals are found in greater quantities and concentrations and with more acute levels of acidity/alkalinity.
Safe Handling of Hazardous Chemicals
With such poor guidance from chemical labels, it's worth taking a moment to go over some general principles for safely handling hazardous materials.
Handling and storing chemicals safely is essential in preventing injury to employees who handle them. All such materials used in an industrial workplace setting must be properly identified, stored, used and disposed of. Below are some general rules for the safe handling and storage of hazardous material.
- Store materials in appropriate containers that are labeled properly (do not use unlabeled chemicals)
- Read the label (or the SDS if applicable) before using the product to ensure that you understand the hazards involved and which precautions you should take
- Use PPE that provides a type and level of protection that corresponds to the hazard (like chemical-resistant gloves, respirators, or safety glasses)
- Use chemical products in a well ventilated area (the type of ventilation required can be found on the product's SDS)
- Only use the chemical for its intended purpose
- Know the emergency procedures in case of an accidental exposure
(Learn more about Chemical Resistant Glove Materials)
Health Hazards of Chemical Exposure
Toxicity is the inherent property of a material to cause an undesirable effect on the human body. A hazardous chemical becomes toxic when it enters the body through the following routes:
- Skin and eye contact, which can cause local reactions (such as a burn or rash) or the absorption of the chemical into the bloodstream, leading to toxic effects on the internal organs
- Inhalation (the most common route of exposure for dusts, vapors, and gasses)
- Ingestion, which often happens indirectly by consuming something food or drink that has been contaminated by being handled by someone who has come into contact with the chemical product
- Injection, which results in the chemical entering the bloodstream
OSHA’s permissible exposure limits (PELs) provide regulatory exposure limits for various individual caustic substances. In workplace settings, most injuries are external in nature than internal injuries. However, most internal injuries from caustic substances (80%) are experienced by young children ingesting a household cleaner with caustic properties.