Handling chemicals is a serious matter that needs the right personal protective equipment (PPE). Chemicals present many dangers that could mean damaging injuries to the handlers. The likelihood of such hazards or the risks they bring requires proper training and PPE for work each and every time. The risks associated with the chemical itself, together with the operations involved, should be taken seriously. Such risks are dependent on what kinds of chemicals are involved, the whole workplace setup or the environment, and the handling methods.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has issued guidelines for having employees or handlers protected when working with chemicals. Following these guidelines is important, along with the standards of any facility where chemicals are used in processing, manufacturing and other production activities. With routine chemical handling, there are specified PPE requirements that must be followed. Depending on the hazards and risks, this protective gear and clothing ensure safe handling of chemicals while still allowing people to comfortably perform tasks.
It is a different matter for events when there is a chemical spill — an event at a laboratory, workplace or production or manufacturing plant where hazardous chemicals are accidentally released. The dangerous leak could be in form of solid, liquid or gaseous substances, and pose multi-level threats to the people at the facility where it takes place. A chemical spill could do further damage if response is mismanaged and the people involved are not properly protected and wearing appropriate gear. When chemical spills take place, the first response should be to determine what kind of chemical is involved. This allows the workplace point people or the responders within the locality to properly communicate about and handle the situation. Remember that there are different sets of precautionary measures, and thus, specialized types of protective equipment.
Chemical handling PPE is divided into four (4) categories, with each based on the protection they are capable of providing. We will discuss each category below:
Level A Protection
Where there is a need for the highest level of skin, eye and respiratory protection, a specific ensemble of clothing and protective gear must be used. This includes a self-contained breathing apparatus or air respirators, a chemical protective suit designed with full encapsulation, and inner and outer safety gloves that are chemical resistant. For the footwear, it is important to note ahead of time whether what is required would be the worn over or the under suit boots. Like the rest of the PPE for this level, the footwear must be chemical resistant, and come with a steel toe.
Level B Protection
In situations where skin and eye irritation are not as threatening, but the respiratory dangers are still at the highest level, then Level B protection is the safest and the best option. Apart from the same gloves and footwear as indicated for Level A, the workers must wear chemical resistant clothing. This means a selection of overalls and coveralls, long-sleeved jackets, a chemical splash suit, and disposable chemical-resistant coveralls.
Level C Protection
This ensemble is the option for when there are airborne chemicals and substances. This means that air-purifying respirators are a vital part of the outfit. However, the situation does not need eye and skin protection for routine use, except that both must be within the facility in case a time does come when it would be needed. But typically, Level C protection only includes face masks and air-purifying respirators, and clothing, gloves and footwear as indicated in Level B.
Level D Protection
The PPE needed for this level is typically just be the work uniforms that are specific to chemical handlers. What facilities qualifying under this level would provide includes coveralls and safety footwear, gloves and mostly disposable protection suits. Level D protection cannot be worn if there are identified skin and respiratory hazards in the workplace.
We have repeatedly mentioned specific clothing and protective gear in all levels, and now we’ll explain what’s needed for chemical handling.
Eye protection, for one, should be designed in a way the eyes are not reached by chemical splashes or infectious substances. The best way to go is chemical splash goggles, which, unlike general safety glasses that are worn in laboratories, provide optimum protection. The majority of the materials used for these special goggles are chemical resistant.
Then there’s the face protection or shield that are required in most instances where chemicals are being handled. Use of these shields prevents skin damage, particularly in work where concentrated acids and dispensing liquid nitrogen is a routine. Face shields are usually worn along with chemical splash goggles and respiratory aids, depending on the chemicals being handled and the specific tasks the employees deal with during the work hours.
Chemical resistant gloves are a must to ensure safety and protection for anyone who handles or comes in contact with harmful substances and compounds, and biological and chemical hazards. Some have light chemical resistance, which is allowed when dealing with small volumes of organic solvents, flammable compounds and corrosive liquids. Stronger types are required when chemical handlers will be using an apparatus under pressure. The light to heavy chemical resistant gloves must also be worn in events where there are air or water reactive chemicals. Insulated and heavy chemical resistant gloves are the safest option and, thus, required when working with large volumes of chemicals. In particular, these gloves are important in work environments where there are acutely toxic and hazardous materials and a high likelihood of chemical spills.
Body protective clothing, another requirement in chemical handling, comes in various forms. For the most part, they are the daily uniforms that provide protection against chemical hazards. Some clothing comes in the form of barriers that are made of polyester and considered excellent for splash protection, and other clothing is made of flame resistant or other traditional materials.
Respiratory protection is a necessity in facilities assessed to have risks to worker health and physical systems. After completion of the hazard assessment is concluded, and it is found out that, indeed, respiratory protection is required for employees, it’s time to choose what kind of protection is needed. Types include surgical masks, N-95 respirators, half mask, and full-face respirators. Each type caters to specific work environments and use would be dependent on the type of chemicals, the workplace setup, period of exposure and the risks that come with working with the chemicals.
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