You and Chemicals in the Workplace

Occupational illness normally develops over a period of time because of workplace conditions. Such conditions might include exposure to disease-causing bacteria and viruses, for example, or to chemicals or dust.
Under the Occupational Health and Safety Act, occupational illness is defined as a condition that results from exposure in a workplace to a physical, chemical or biological agent to the extent that the normal physiological mechanisms are affected and the health of the worker is impaired.
Designated Substances:
Designated substance means a biological, chemical, or physical agent or combination thereof, prescribed as a designated substance to which the exposure of a worker is prohibited,   regulated, restricted, limited or controlled. The Ministry of Labour considers designated substances so dangerous that specific pieces of legislation have been written about them. These pieces of legislation are called Designated Substance regulations under the Occupational Health and Safety Act (OHSA).
One example of a designated substance found in almost every health care setting is mercury. Mercury can be found in some thermometers and blood pressure cuffs. Hazardous Substance Regulation (O.Reg. 141/82; Designated Substance- Mercury) outlines control programs for the use, handling, storage and disposal of mercury. Other designated substances that are found in many health care settings are asbestos, silica (used in crafts), ethylene oxide (used in sterilizing processes), benzene (found in some laboratories), lead (wherever soldering is done) and isocyanates (in insulation and some paints).
Health care environments can house a vast array of chemicals. Examples of hazardous chemicals may include disinfectants and antiseptics; many chemicals used in laboratories; detergents; cleaners and anaesthetic gases. Even some drugs administered to patients can be harmful to staff if not properly handled. In addition to the Designated Substance regulations; the Control of Biological and Chemical Agents Regulation contains occupational exposure limits (OELs) to restrict the amount and duration of workers' exposure to hazardous chemical substances. WHMIS and consumer product safety programs also help to eliminate or reduce the risk of exposure.
Hazard Summary:
In some workplaces flammable and other potentially deadly substances are being used without proper labelling. All workers, but particularly new workers are at particular risk if they are working without adequate supervision and proper training and if they are in jobs for which they have no experience.
The Workplace Hazardous Materials Information System (WHMIS) is a Canada-wide law designed to make sure chemicals and other hazardous substances are handled safely. It has three basic components: 
1. Labelling: You have the right to know when a product you are dealing with is dangerous. Flammable and other potentially deadly substances must be properly labelled. 
2. Material Safety Data Sheets: The Material Safety Data Sheet or "MSDS" on a hazardous substance provides detailed and comprehensive safety information about it. It covers proper handling and protection against overexposure, the health effects of overexposure, and emergency procedures. The MSDS on each hazardous substance in a workplace must be in the workplace and available to the workers. 
3. Worker Education and Training: You must be trained before you handle any hazardous substances. You must be taught about hazardous substances in general and trained in handling the particular materials you will be working with. 
Never take a substance for granted. If you are asked to use any substance that is not labelled or if you see a product that is not labelled, ask your supervisor or employer for the MSDS on it. This information is your right under the Occupational Health and Safety Act.
Do not use substances if they are not properly labelled or if you have not received WHMIS training in handling them. 
It is the employer's responsibility to make sure that the requirements of WHMIS are met. This law is enforced by the Ministry of Labour.
How can I be Safer?:
There are ways to make your potentially hazardous workplace healthier and safer. You can make sure to:
  • know what hazards exist in your workplace
  • use the personal protective equipment provided by your employer
  • participate in health and safety training sessions
  • follow policies and practice safe work procedures
  • report to your supervisor any circumstances that you believe to be unsafe for yourself or other workers
There are limits to what you can do as an individual. Making changes in your work environment will require the help of your managers, your Joint Health and Safety Committee, and your health and safety professionals. Making your workplace healthy and safe for everyone works best when there is a team approach - that is, when workers, managers, JHSC and health and safety professionals all work together.
Reference: Ministry of Labour 
Next Issue: 'Biological Hazard: C-Difficile'