Originally Published February 5, 2019
Workplace chemicals pose a risk to people. If they did not, there would be no need to focus on Chemical Risk Management and current WHMIS related activities would be sufficient to maintain a safe and healthy work place. There are three reasons why organizations need to think about more than WHMIS compliance.
An Endless Selection of Products
According to the Chemical Abstracts Service (CAS) there are over 150,000,000 chemicals in existence. These chemicals can be combined into even more products. Our research has shown the average organization’s hazardous product list is divided into 15% pure chemicals and 85% products (or mixtures of chemicals).
These products are marketed by suppliers who focus on the benefits of the products not the associated risks. The only place to get the hazard information for these products is through WHMIS as nobody can possibly understand this vast number of products and associated hazards without it. But chemical risk management requires moving beyond obtaining data sheets to reading and acting on the information presented.
‘Invisible’ Health Hazards
Unlike many safety hazards in the workplace, which may be seen, heard or felt, the health hazards associated with most chemicals are invisible – there is no immediate indicator of harm. Consider that in most jurisdictions the maximum amount of a chemical that a person can be exposed to is measured as a time-weighted average limit (TWA) in parts per million (ppm). These are small numbers most of us cannot comprehend. But the number is small because scientific data indicates that exposure above that number can be harmful to your health.
When we use a product like an adhesive, we see its benefits in terms of adhering two items together, but rarely are we conscious of its chemical risk. For most isocyanates (found in adhesives) the TWA is 0.005ppm. How do we know if we are being exposed? We start with WHMIS to understand the product composition and hazards but then we require a risk management approach to develop appropriate protective measures.
Long Term Impact
The exposure limits for chemicals are very small and often the cumulative impact of that exposure is not felt for years or decades. People don’t see the impact until they are in their late 50’s or 60’s. The reality is WSIB records show 3 times as many people die from occupational disease as trauma – and this could be understated. According to a study referenced by the Occupational Health Clinics for Ontario Workers (OHCOW), up to 1 in 5 cancers could be work related. That would increase the reported death rate from occupational disease by 30 times.
The rapidly increasing use of workplace chemicals combined with the invisible nature of the hazards and their long term impact require us to look beyond the updating of safety data sheets to an effective chemical risk management process.
Learn More About Chemical Risk Management
This is the second of six blogs that talk about Chemical Risk Management and how any organization can make dramatic improvements in chemical safety with the same or less effort than you are spending today complying with WHMIS. These blogs will cover the following topics:
2. Is Chemical Risk Management Important?
If you have any questions on this blog or the series, please contact us. We’d be happy to discuss your chemical safety challenges.