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Hazardous Contaminants

Last updated: January 1, 2019

What Does Hazardous Contaminants Mean?

A hazardous contaminant is any hazardous substance whose presence in an environment is undesirable and poses a risk to workers in that environment. When an environment becomes contaminated with a hazardous substance, the environment itself becomes hazardous due to the presence of the contaminant.

This includes situations in which contaminants can soil clothing, personal protective equipment (PPE), and other items, rendering those contaminated items a risk for spreading the contaminants into new environments if not properly isolated or decontaminated.

Safeopedia Explains Hazardous Contaminants

Many workplaces are subject to mandatory decontamination procedures due to the risks posed by contaminants. These include workplaces in which ongoing contamination is a regular feature of normal work activities—for instance, hospitals being contaminated by biological hazards like bodily fluids—and workplaces in which the use of toxic substances could pose a severe risk to worker health if the contaminant (e.g. a radioactive substance) is brought into an unprotected environment.

A hazardous contaminant can, at the simplest level, be understood as a type of pollutant that harms people who are exposed to it in sufficient quantities. For instance, diesel engines and other combustion engines that emit harmful gases are emitters of contaminants. If the gases emitted from these engines are not controlled or used in an open space, the air in the working environment may become contaminated, resulting in harm to worker health.

The risk posed by hazardous contaminants is generally managed through the same hierarchy of hazard controls applied to other hazard risks. For example, risks posed by contaminated air might be mitigated through engineering controls such as powered ventilation systems.

If the contaminant cannot be controlled effectively enough to prevent it from contaminating the work environment in which it is used, the use of PPE and behavior-based policies designed to limit worker exposure (administrative controls) may be necessary. For instance, hazardous radioactive materials that constantly emit high-energy particles will inevitably contaminate the space in which they are kept. Unless decontamination has been completed, workers present in the contaminated space will need to wear PPE regardless of whether the original radioactive materials are still present.

Workplace policies and occupational health and safety authorities such as OSHA may mandate worker decontamination procedures in situations where the risk of spreading contaminants has been recognized through a hazard risk assessment or if it is viewed as inherent to the nature of the work being done. If a worker were to inadvertently become contaminated or transport a contaminated item (e.g. clothing) into another part of the workplace (such as a break room), those other areas—which may lack routine hazard detection and decontamination procedures—could also become contaminated.


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