The chemical industry’s worldwide revenue stood at $3 to $4 trillion in 2020. This high dependence on chemicals juxtaposes the fact that more and more workers are being exposed to hazardous chemicals across industries daily. The Bureau of Labor Statistics shows a record number of deaths from exposure to harmful substances in 2020, the highest toll since the series began in 2011. According to the OSHA toolkit for workers and employers, 190,000 workers suffer illnesses, and 50,000 die annually from chemical exposures. In fact, exposure to harmful substances or environments is the No. 1 cause of nonfatal injuries and illnesses involving days away from work [National Safety Council].
Hazardous chemicals pose the following hazards to workers handling chemicals -
Workers may suffer from difficulty in breathing, swallowing, nausea and dizziness, concentration and memory issues, rashes, neurological problems, allergic reactions, and even death.
The Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) protects workers against occupational exposure to toxic chemicals. OSHA has multiple standards that regulate chemicals and toxic substances in general industry, maritime, and construction. Employees exposed to chemicals are required to -
Apart from OSHA, The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) handles various environmental laws that address chemicals, including occupational exposures.
OSHA guides employers to take the following steps to minimize chemical hazards at the workplace -
Just like employers, employees are also responsible for staying safe from chemicals. For instance, Maine laws require employees working with toxic chemicals to:
In general, employees are expected to have a sense of self-safety like using only labeled chemical containers, using a substance solely for their intended purpose (like not using solvents to clean hands, or gasoline to wipe down equipment), and not eating while handling chemicals, etc. It is assumed that chemical workers do not make silly mistakes like tasting or smelling a substance instead of reading the SDS or taking a sample for analysis first; they must separate incompatibles. Employees must know emergency procedures, emergency equipment, and evacuation procedures. Basic hygiene habits like proper handwashing and cleaning work surfaces are also employees’ duties.
Yes, employers are liable for chemical exposures to their employees. In fact, the General Duty Clause of the OSH Act lays the responsibility of providing a safe and healthful workplace that is free from serious recognized hazards on employers’ shoulders.
Injuries/accidents resulting from employers’ negligence towards workers using and handling chemicals in the workplace are considered an OSHA violation that may fall into one of the four categories.
*The penalty amounts keep changing yearly with the annual inflation adjustment.
Penalties are levied after a workplace inspection which may be conducted after a worker complains to OSHA or an equivalent state agency in state-plan states.
OSHA’s updated Hazard Communication Standard requires chemical manufacturers and importers to use GHS labels with pictograms, a harmonized signal word, hazard statement for each hazard class and category and precautionary statements, the product identifier, and supplier identification.
Workplace Label requirements have not changed since 1994. OSHA maintains that employers may continue to use the existing signage (including NFPA labels and HMIS labels) to provide employees with hazard information on chemicals. This workplace labeling system may include signs, placards, process sheets, batch tickets, operating procedures, or other such written materials to identify hazardous chemicals. Workplace labels must be in English. Other languages may be added to the label if applicable.
The OSHA-compliant chemical hazard pictogram must have -