Fast-tracking chemical safety in your workplace: Why, what & how
SDS RiskAssist CEO Lisa Hallsworth presents “Fast-tracking Chemical Safety in Your Workplace: Why, What, How” at the Canadian Safety and Sustainability Professionals (CSSP) first health and safety conference in Orillia, Ontario Sept. 21, 2022.
We are pleased to present an overview of Lisa’s talk, which explains:
- Why chemical safety in the workplace is so important
- What the barriers are
- How software tools can resolve those barriers
As a chemical engineer, Lisa’s experience with chemical safety spans more than 25 years of working in refineries and chemical plants that use hazardous, complex processes to make everyday products like gasoline, fuel oil, clothing, carpet and airbag yarns, and refrigerants for fridges, freezers and air conditioners.
Lisa was in her teens when five people were killed in a massive chemical explosion at the Point Tupper pulp and paper mill in her Cape Breton hometown, including a high school friend who inhaled toxic gas as he tried to escape the explosion.
It was a defining moment that stayed with her as she pursued her career as an engineer. She discovered first-hand how difficult it is to access and manage all the information necessary to work safely with chemicals. Canada’s Workplace Hazardous Materials Information System (WHMIS) is an important tool; however, it still takes a vast amount of time to interpret WHMIS information for various workplaces, assess risks and take meaningful action. Lisa co-founded SDS RiskAssist in 2016 with the vision of making chemical safety easier to enable people and the planet to benefit from the safe use of chemicals.
Benefiting from chemicals while managing the risks
Chemicals have many important uses across industries. For example, affordable water sanitization would not be possible without chemicals. At the same time, inappropriate use of chemicals and waste disposal is creating health issues for millions of people. So how do we achieve the right balance for people and the planet?
It’s a question central to meeting several of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. And it starts with understanding that occupational exposure to chemical products happens in every workplace.
The number of chemicals in the workplace is on the rise…
SDS RiskAssist data show that the average workplace uses hundreds of chemicals: a small dental office can use close to 200 chemicals and even a small city uses over 500 chemicals! The number of chemicals in use has increased exponentially since the 1960s: there are now more than 200 million chemicals substances registered by the Chemical Abstract Service.
These substances can be combined to create literally an infinite number of products that can be used in today’s workplaces; just consider the cleaning products that have come on the market during COVID.
…and so is the prevalence of occupational disease
At the same time, research by the Occupational Cancer Research Centre (OCRC) shows that occupational disease adversely affects large numbers of people, even with low exposures to products that are often considered much less dangerous; for example, we see an increase in asthma and dermatitis for people performing housekeeping, janitorial and other duties using cleaning agents.
The Safety Data Sheet challenge
Despite the soaring number of chemical products, many employers still attempt to manage chemical hazards with binders of paper safety data sheets or even with electronic files, which save trees but are still overwhelming to read and digest. Safety managers are required to review thousands of pages of information that must be kept up to date as formulations evolve. They are also required to provide support as the people who use the products change too: for example, workers may acquire sensitivities to certain ingredients and pregnant workers may require accommodations.
It’s not simply a matter of a single review of your safety data sheets and you’re done. This information is constantly relevant and when people are unable to access and process it, we see costs such as lost-time incidents, investigations, lost productivity due to illnesses like asthma that can be exacerbated by chemical exposure, and lack of trust leading to employee turnover. In today’s workplace with labour shortages we need everyone to show up for work and be healthy!
Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB) statistics for 20 years between 1997 and 2017 show that traumatic injuries are falling but cancer rates are increasing:
In 2019, the the Ontario Ministry of Labour, Immigration, Training and Skills Development commissioned the OCRC to study the problem. Their report found was that only about 6% of the expected diagnosed occupational cancer cases were receiving WSIB support, indicating that there is a tsunami of cancer cases that are not officially connected to occupational exposures.
Evaluating safety risks
Safety professionals are trained to reduce accidents in the workplace by using data on workplace “near misses” as a predictor for workplace accidents or death. This approach works well for safety incidents that we can see, such as working at heights, trip hazards, etc.
More challenging is preventing workplace incidents like chemical exposures that our bodies don’t immediately perceive and tend to first show up at the medical treatment stage. Even then, the cause may be overlooked and the timing is well down the road, as in the case with asthma and hearing loss.
Ideally, we need strategies to identify the potential for harm earlier.
This starts with leveraging a program you’re already required to invest in: WHMIS 2015, which essentially requires employers to do three things:
- Provide workers with access to SDSs 24/7
- Identify hazards and control risks
- And train employees specific to the chemicals they manage
Given the volume of SDSs in a typical workplace, and the dynamic nature of SDS updates, how can safety pros keep on top of it all?
Digital tools for safety & sustainability pros
Technology like SDS RiskAssist is built to do that heavy lifting. The software combs through all your SDSs for relevant data and organizes it so you instantly can see what types hazards you manage, assess risk and prioritize your approach.
SDS RiskAssist categorizes hazards into 6 buckets:
- Unknown hazards (Grey): those where the SDS doesn’t comply with the hazardous products regulations, and they may not have to, e.g., a pesticide
- Fatal, toxic or unusual fire or explosion hazards (Red), e.g., fatal if inhaled
- Occupational disease hazards (Orange): carcinogen, mutagen, reproductive, respiratory or organ damage
- Common eye, skin, inhaled, fire and environmental hazards (Yellow): hazards that a typical safety programs will mitigate (e.g., wear safety glasses, gloves).
- Environmental only hazards (Dark Blue)
- No hazards (Green)
Having this information at your fingertips allows you to quickly prioritize and take action to address 38% of the total chemicals being used in this workplace example.
Risk profiles look very different depending on your workplace, industry and the chemicals being used. Here are a few more examples from SDSRiskAssist data:
You can see how chemical safety priorities may change depending on your workplace. With SDS RiskAssist software, you can actually drill down to specific locations within your organization. For some of our municipal clients, we provide this information by location, such as for each transit location, an arena, a police station, etc. Now you can understand where the worst hazards are and enlist help through your safety teams to eliminate or reduce risks.
Back to our risk triangle example: data from your WHMIS SDSs can now be used as leading indicators for chemical related near misses, medical treatment and disease. This knowledge gives you the ability to mitigate before harm occurs.
The hierarchy of chemical hazard controls
For example, one of our municipal clients used SDS RiskAssist to identify seven isocyanate-containing products in a work area that they were previously unaware of. In Ontario, isocyanates are one of 11 categories of designated substances and for good reason: they are linked to lung disease and can result in asthma or even death with just one exposure. This client has now eliminated five of the seven isocyanate-containing products and are planning to eliminate the other two.