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Posted: January 14th, 2024

Preventing Occupational Exposure to Hazardous Substances

Preventing Occupational Exposure to Hazardous Substances

Occupational exposure to hazardous substances is a serious health and safety issue that affects millions of workers worldwide. According to the World Health Organization, more than 2.3 million workers die each year from occupational diseases, many of which are caused or aggravated by exposure to chemical, biological, physical or radiological agents (WHO, 2021). Moreover, occupational exposure to hazardous substances can lead to chronic diseases, disabilities, reduced productivity and quality of life, and increased health care costs.

What are hazardous substances and how are they classified?

Hazardous substances are any materials that can pose a risk to human health or the environment when used, stored, transported or disposed of. They can be solids, liquids, gases, vapors, dusts, fumes or mists. They can be natural or synthetic, organic or inorganic, pure or mixed. Some examples of hazardous substances are asbestos, benzene, lead, mercury, pesticides, radioactive materials and solvents.

Hazardous substances are classified according to their physical, chemical and biological properties and their potential effects on human health and the environment. The most widely used classification system is the Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labelling of Chemicals (GHS), which was developed by the United Nations and adopted by many countries and regions. The GHS uses pictograms, signal words, hazard statements and precautionary statements to communicate the hazards and safety measures of each substance (UN, 2017).

What are the routes of exposure and the health effects of hazardous substances?

Workers can be exposed to hazardous substances through different routes: inhalation, skin contact, ingestion or injection. The route of exposure determines the amount and the speed of absorption of the substance into the body and its distribution to different organs and tissues. The health effects of hazardous substances depend on several factors, such as the type, concentration and duration of exposure, the individual susceptibility and the presence of other stressors or co-exposures.

The health effects of hazardous substances can be acute or chronic. Acute effects occur shortly after exposure and are usually reversible if the exposure is stopped. They include irritation, inflammation, burns, allergic reactions, poisoning and asphyxiation. Chronic effects develop over a long period of time after repeated or prolonged exposure and are often irreversible or progressive. They include cancer, organ damage, reproductive disorders, neurological disorders and immunological disorders.

How can occupational exposure to hazardous substances be prevented?

The best way to prevent occupational exposure to hazardous substances is to eliminate or substitute them with less hazardous alternatives whenever possible. This can be done by using safer materials, processes or technologies that reduce or eliminate the generation or use of hazardous substances. For example, replacing solvent-based paints with water-based paints or using electric tools instead of gasoline-powered tools.

If elimination or substitution is not feasible, other control measures should be implemented to reduce or minimize the exposure. These include engineering controls, administrative controls and personal protective equipment (PPE). Engineering controls involve modifying the design or layout of the workplace or equipment to isolate or contain the source of exposure or to improve ventilation or filtration. Administrative controls involve changing the work practices or policies to limit the frequency or duration of exposure or to provide training or information on how to handle hazardous substances safely. PPE involves wearing appropriate clothing or devices that protect the body from contact with hazardous substances. Examples of PPE are gloves, goggles, masks

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