Ototoxic chemicals a hidden threat to worker health
I wish I had known more about a group of commonly used chemicals known as ototoxicants when I started my career as a refinery process engineer. These hazardous chemicals can affect a person’s balance and hearing and cause neurological damage and tinnitus, even when noise levels are normal.
My first job at an oil refinery in 1980s involved lots of hands-on work crawling through equipment during shutdowns, testing samples and trying to diagnose problems. It was challenging and fulfilling. But working in a refinery is also dangerous.
In the late 1980s, Canada's Workplace Hazardous Materials Information System (WHMIS) was just being introduced and chemical safety was in its infancy. While I wore personal protective equipment such as a hard hat, safety glasses and shoes, leather gloves and fire-retardant coveralls, there wasn’t much knowledge about or protection from the hazards associated with chemical exposures. My leather gloves were great for preventing cuts and hand injuries, but they provided no protection against chemicals and were often soaked through when handling samples.
During my time in refining, I experienced balance issues which led to many months of medical testing (and concern about my health). When the tests were clear, the symptoms were blamed on workload and stress. And while this was plausible, it didn’t seem right to me.
Today with more knowledge about ototoxic chemicals and the benefit of hindsight I suspect that my regular exposure to solvents and high levels of noise were contributing to my symptoms, which resolved once I left refining.
What are ototoxicants?
According to the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS), "more than 100 substances present in workplaces have been identified as being potentially ototoxic." These substances include:
- Organic solvents
- Halogenated hydrocarbons
- Metals and compounds
- Tobacco smoke
- Pharmaceuticals, and
- Other substances such as pesticides, polychlorinated biphenyls, etc.
Ototoxicants can be absorbed through the skin or through inhalation; however, the symptoms that result from exposure are difficult to troubleshoot. For example, if an employee experiences hearing loss or tinnitus, the normal course of action for the employer is to conduct sound level readings and ensure hearing protection is provided.
However, with ototoxic chemicals the problem is the quality of air an employee is breathing and whether they are being exposed to high levels of the chemicals. Troubleshooting is not intuitive because ototoxicity symptoms don’t seem to connect directly to the cause.
What chemical products are ototoxic?
A typical workplace uses about 100 chemical products, each with a safety data sheet (SDS) that runs several pages long. In the past, the only way for employers to prevent employee harm was to look for ototoxic substances in the individual chemical products being used. The sheer volume of SDSs made it extremely difficult for employers to know which products contain harmful ototoxic substances — until now.
SDS RiskAssist is a WHMIS compliance software platform that analyzes digital safety data sheets to instantly flag hazards like ototoxicants. Through SDS RiskAssist we know that ototoxic chemicals are found in paints, gasoline, solvents, floor sealers, graffiti remover and other products used by municipalities, hotels, hospitals, automotive shops and more.
Safe management of ototoxic substances
Once you've identified that your workplace uses ototoxic products, you can use SDS RiskAssist tools to quickly determine exposure limits and make decisions to:
- eliminate products where possible
- find safer substitutes, or
- implement safe handing procedures, including improving ventilation and providing proper respiratory protection or other personal protective equipment for employees who are required to handle these products for business-critical reasons.
I can tell you from experience that when you’re having dizzy spells at work, it’s hard to be productive and very few people want to talk about these symptoms with their employer. Eliminating exposures and providing employees with better knowledge about hazardous chemicals not only protects worker health and safety, it can also help to build trust and improve the overall work environment and productivity.
Are ototoxic chemical products present in your workplace?
Do you have questions about chemical safety and how to make it more manageable and effective? Please reach out and let's start the conversation. Get in touch.