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Safety first: Minimising the risk of chemical accidents at work

In jobs that involve the use of chemicals and dangerous substances, the risk of an industrial accident is always present. Accidents can cause casualties, environmental damage and economic harm. To keep their working environments safe, healthy and accident-free, businesses should pay close attention to how dangerous substances are used, stored and disposed of.

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There is a broad spectrum of risks and consequences associated with workplace accidents involving chemicals. Some accidents can be small in scale and have relatively low impact, especially if basic preventive measures have been taken. Others, while still relatively small in scale, might have more serious consequences for the employees. For instance, a worker’s skin might become exposed to a dangerous substance due to a burst pipe or faulty container; or a farmer could accidentally drink poisonous pesticides stored in an unlabelled drinks bottle. Although both circumstances could be extremely harmful – and potentially even fatal – for the workers involved, the impact is still largely restricted to the immediate area.

In situations involving explosive chemicals, such as the Chemstar incident in 1981 (UK), the impact becomes more severe and far-reaching. An accident could cause fatalities among workers or the wider public and have a significant negative impact upon the environment. Whatever the scenario, governments and employers should take precautions to prevent chemical accidents and keep workers, the public and the environment safe.

What is being done to avoid accidents involving chemicals?

Recognising the implications of major chemical accidents, action has been taken at a European level to protect workers and help businesses to minimise the risk of an accident. Given that there are, on average, 30 major chemical accidents in the EU each year, the effects of which are not contained by national borders, it is crucial that European countries work together to tackle and prevent chemical accidents. The Major Accident Hazards Bureau of the EU Joint Research Centre offers support to chemical disaster risk reduction.

In 1976, a chemical plant near the town of Seveso, Italy, released a toxic cloud exposing the residents to the highest known levels of 2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin (TCDD), an extremely harmful substance. The cloud, which descended upon the town, seriously poisoned many inhabitants. It also contaminated both soil and foliage. As a result, the EU implemented the Seveso Directive I (and its subsequent updates in 1996 and 2012) to learn from previous mistakes and help businesses minimise the risk of any future incidents.

The 3 Seveso directives apply to more than 12,000 industrial establishments in the EU. They provide guidance on improving safety and implementing preventive measures in sites containing large quantities of dangerous substances, especially within the petrochemical, fuel wholesale and fuel storage industries. The directives also give clear directions on what to do in the event of a major disaster.

Alongside EU legislation, resources such as the FACTS database (the Failure and Accidents Technical Information System) can provide useful information. The database, which requires a paid subscription, has information on more than 25,700 major accidents involving hazardous substances over the past 90 years.

Reducing risks: How can employers help?

Besides action being taken at a transnational level, direct measures can be implemented by employers to immediately decrease the risk of an accident. Employers should focus on the materials, equipment and infrastructure used by workers. Where possible, the best idea is to substitute dangerous and reactive substances for safer alternatives. Similarly, using safer storage facilities or containers, and safer filling or refilling equipment, can lessen the risk.

Another way to prevent accidents is to ensure that any substances that could react or explode are kept at a safe distance from each other. Making use of software to safely classify and store substances can ensure that chemicals that react or develop new properties when exposed to each other are kept separately.

More industry-specific information about accident-proofing workplace operations and procedures can be found via HSE’s Direct Advice Sheets or from BAuA’s Control Guidance Sheets. The ILO’s International Chemical Safety Card scheme also offers useful information on the properties and risks of specific dangerous substances and chemicals.

Finally, offering accident prevention training to workers is a good way to ensure that everyone in the business – from the shop floor to the board – is working in a safe and conscientious way. It’s also good practice to strongly prohibit dangerous behaviour, such as over-stacking storage containers, mislabelling or improperly storing harmful substances, or blocking fire exits and safety showers.

By closely following safety procedures and establishing a culture of prevention among workers, businesses can significantly reduce the risk of accidents. EU-OSHA has published practical tools and safety information to help, and more information can be found on the Healthy Workplaces Campaign news page. Don’t forget to also follow the campaign on Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter (#EUhealthyworkplaces).