5 Stories on Why Managing Hazardous Chemicals in the Workplace is so Important

Here are 5 stories, with 5 lessons, that illustrate why chemicals in the workplace, no matter the size of the company or the number of employees, are serious business. As demonstrated below, how chemicals are used, stored, labeled, and disposed of, and how employees are trained on chemical hazards, affects workers, customers, and in some cases, communities stretching far beyond a business’s front door.

Lesson #1: Everyone is Downstream

According to articles on WSJ.com and news.Yahoo.com, on August 6, at one of the largest copper mines in Mexico, in the northern state of Sonora, 10 million gallons of sulfuric acid leaked out of a holding tank and contaminated two rivers and leaving them orange and toxic and stranding thousands of people and farmers without water. The Wall Street Journal reports the Mexican government plans to file criminal charges against top mine officials, in addition to other fines and cleanup costs.

In this terrible incident, the physical effects of the chemical spill literally spread downstream, over 35 miles, changing the lives of so many who have no relationship with the mine other than being down river and having to share in dealing with the consequences of the spill.

At this point, for folks living outside the affected area, it would be easy to chalk the incident up to industrial carelessness having no impact outside a small group of people. However, in today’s economy and with our modern understanding of environmentalism and ecology, we know that everyone is connected and living downstream from everyone else. And when dealing with chemicals in quantities like this, failure of processes or infrastructure can be catastrophic.

Lesson #2: Every Hazardous Chemical in Every Workplace Matters

When one thinks of hazardous chemicals, what often jumps to mind are a mix industrial settings and news stories like the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico or the explosion of the West Fertilizer Company facility in West Texas. Nonetheless, no industry or business is automatically exempt from chemical exposure, and some of the most frightening incidents take place where we least expect them – in no small part because it’s where we least expect them.

For instance, every year there are a slew of chemical incidents in schools and at colleges that force the evacuation of student and faculty, often after a life threatening exposure has occurred.

This month, ABC News reported on two stories of customers at restaurants ingesting hazardous chemicals after employees unknowingly served contaminated beverages. The most recent incident took place at a fast food restaurant, where an employee served vanilla shakes tainted with a cleaning chemical to several customers.

According to the ABC report, “the mistake occurred when one employee left a container with chemical cleaner in the sink and then another employee later filled that container with vanilla syrup, thinking the container was clean.” The New York Daily News clarifies that a vanilla bottle had been in the sink when degreaser was poured into the sink, contaminating the bottle. Another employee took the bottle, thinking it was clean, refilled it with syrup and put it out for use.

Without knowing the specifics, it appears as though this accident was caused by a breakdown on many fronts, particularly on the employee training side. The business basically said as much by responding to the incident with news that employees would be undergoing additional training. It can be easy to minimize the necessity of HazCom training, especially for businesses where hazardous chemicals are not primary to the products or services offered, however, as this case illustrates. However, even if a company only has one hazardous chemical in the workplace, it should command the appropriate respect, as this case illustrates, because the consequences are too deplorable  — and are downright bad for business.

The second incident in the news took place at a restaurant in Utah where a woman was served tea tainted with lye. According to the report, “An employee mistook degreaser – made up of sodium hydroxide, or lye – for sugar, mixing it into the tea and causing extreme burns to [the customer’s] throat and mouth.”

Making the matter worse, it was the second time this summer that lye was mistaken for sugar at the restaurant. An employee burned her tongue after testing the substance which was apparently stored in a sugar container. The lawyer for the injured customers stated, "To me it means that the company was on notice that there was a hazardous substance that wasn't properly labeled, that wasn't properly controlled…And that things should have and could have been done to prevent my client…from being injured."

Which leads us to…

Lesson #3: Fix What’s Broken

Since the OSH Act was passed in 1970 (requiring U.S. companies to provide safe and healthful working conditions), employers, safety professionals, organized labor organizations, NGOs, and U.S. agencies have been hashing out the exact responsibilities an employer to mitigate risks in the workplace.

OSHA has been pushing for a new standard called I2P2, or Injury and Illness Prevention Program, which would require employers to systematically find and fix potential workplace hazards. This proposal has been squashed, at least temporarily, due to strong resistance from stakeholders. However, what is without question is the established responsibility of employers to take corrective actions against known hazards that have already proven to cause injury and illnesses in the workplace.

In the case of the lye spiked tea, the employer had an obligation to properly label hazardous chemicals in the workplace, and to train employees on the labels as well as the nature of the chemicals to which employees were exposed. But let’s assume they had and that the first incident with the employee was a freak accident; once the employee was injured by the chemical, and the nature of the hazard was known, the employer should have had a system in place to take corrective actions to eliminate the risk.

The same accident occurring a month later, this time injuring a customer, suggests that there was no system in place to fix what was broken. From a compliance perspective, OSHA can be forgiving of incidents that occur at employers with good hazard abatement systems and training in place. The agency is less forgiving of employers who don’t fix what they clearly know (or should know) what is broken.

Lesson #4: Help First Responders Help You

First responders and their equipment are a shared and especially vulnerable resource, and when an incident takes place that weakens the ability to respond to other emergencies, the repercussions ripple throughout the community.

For instance, when it comes to accidents related to hazardous chemicals, the question that needs to be asked is, “Have we done enough on the preventative side by decreasing the chance of the incident happening in the first place, and minimizing the effects of the hazards when it does occur?”

Today, managing your chemical footprint goes beyond OSHA compliance and protecting employees, it is literally a civic duty. Companies with certain volumes and types of chemicals must be communicating with emergency response agencies on the local, county, state and national level to ensures resources are in place to handle every type of foreseeable emergency. It means knowing and following what are often cumbersome rules and regulations. It might be tempting to skate under the radar; however, the backlash from this approach is magnified in the wake of an incident.

Here 5 steps companies can take to make life safer for first responders:

  1. Understand the laws, zoning requirements, and regulations governing the use, storage, and disposal of hazardous chemicals in your community
  2. Have a complete inventory and accounting of your chemicals at the ingredient level with corresponding safety data sheets
  3. Provide safety data sheets and additional information to appropriate agencies and first responders (e.g. Tier II reports, EPCRA reporting of extremely hazardous substances [EHS])
  4. Invite first responders out to the facility, work together to develop emergency response plans
  5. Use technology, like MSDSonline’s HQ and HQ RegXR Accounts, to create and share electronic chemical inventories, access to MSDSs and facility maps with your local fire department and other responders

Lesson #5: Chemical Substitution is Good Business

Global Manufacturing reports that Apple is eliminating use of two particularly toxic chemicals, benzene and n-hexane, from its manufacturing assembly process. The move follows on the heels of a joint publicity campaign by Green America and China Labor Watch (CLW), as reported by Manufacturing Weekly, to pressure Apple into removing the toxins from the manufacturing process.

In making the move, Apple stated there was no evidence of workers being at risk in any of the 22 factories where assembly takes place by over 500,000 employees. Still, the company ordered the testing of substances at the ingredient level to ensure the two toxins are rooted out from the facilities.

Saferchemicals.org reports that Green America and CLW used petitions, with 23,000 signatures, to call attention to the issue. These petitions, along with stories by a variety of news outlets about an Apple boycott called for by Green America and CLW put the spotlight squarely on Apple.

Apple for its part, along with the announcement of banning the two toxins, released the Apple Regulated Substances Specification, a guide to the chemicals the company has on its watch list.

It would be easy to look at Apple’s predicament and believe the pressure it feels is something only bigger companies have to worry about; nonetheless, the introduction to Apple’s specifications document provides an important lesson to every company in the hazardous chemical supply chain, especially venders selling to larger consumer facing companies. It reads in part:

“We require our suppliers to adhere to this Regulated Substances Specification, which describes Apple’s global restrictions on the use of certain chemical substances or materials in our products, accessories, manufacturing processes, and packaging used for shipping products to Apple’s customers. We derive these restrictions from international laws or directives, agency or eco-label requirements, and Apple policies—but in many cases, they go beyond the minimum required by law. And we hold our suppliers accountable by conducting factory audits, testing components with independent laboratories, and verifying the results in a lab we built at our headquarters in Cupertino, California.

“Taking precautions against or screening out chemicals of concern listed in this specification should merely be a first step. We expect our suppliers to take their own actions to understand the human health and environmental impacts of all chemicals that are used in the manufacturing process and present in materials supplied to Apple.”

Essentially, Apple is saying that it’s not just their responsibility to improve the chemical footprint of its products, but that it calls on and expects its vendors to be proactive in reducing the hazards posed by chemicals in the products supplied to them.

And it’s not just Apple, across all industries, larger companies in the crosshairs of industry regulators and consumer groups are starting to pressure smaller companies up the supply chain to be just as attentive to chemical concerns.

In the end, it’s a business decision. Not only is it bad for business to have headlines about employees exposed to, or injured by, toxic workplace chemicals, it is unproductive, less efficient, and in the end more costly to use highly hazardous chemicals when safer alternatives are available.

Furthermore, those companies that are taking an aggressive approach to sustainability and greener products are being rewarded by consumers in the marketplace.

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