How To Handle Hazardous Chemicals

Lucy Bell-Young

by Lucy Bell-Young

20th January 2021

Blog

Handling hazardous chemicals requires special tools, protective clothing, and compliance with the proper procedures. Some chemicals, like radioactive materials, are too hazardous to be handled directly by humans. In fact, robots are often needed to handle such chemicals while the operators stand at a safe distance. 

Hazardous chemicals are typically highly reactive, corrosive, or radioactive. Even some common substances like water can be potentially hazardous under certain conditions.

Close-up side view of a scientist in protective suit looking at hazardous blue chemical

What Are The Hazards Associated With Hazardous Chemicals?

Hazards refer to any potential and preventable injury that people may encounter at work, at home, or at any other location. Chemical hazards can cause physical bodily harm, long-term health risks, psychological harm, and even fatality.

While accidents happen, you can minimise the risks if you implement some precautions that address the hazards involved. However, you must first understand the hazards involved to respond more effectively and at the lowest cost possible.

Some of the common hazards associated with hazardous chemicals are:

  • Toxic fumes: Some chemicals, like alcohol and gasoline, are highly volatile. If they aren’t properly stored, fumes might escape and cause irritation to the mucous linings of the nasal passage and lungs. They can also cause nausea and unconsciousness at high levels of concentration.
  • Corrosive reactions: Acids and bases are common industrial reagents and precursors for manufacturing other types of chemicals. Both of these substances are highly corrosive, not only to metals but also to organic materials like human skin, where they can cause chemical burns. 
  • Poisoning: All hazardous chemicals are poisonous when ingested or absorbed by the skin or lungs. Poisoning is a common risk that can be prevented by avoiding direct contact with hazardous chemicals.
  • Carcinogenic risks: Some chemicals, like benzene and asbestos, may not cause immediate or noticeable harm when in contact with the skin or when accidentally inhaled. However, these chemicals are carcinogenic and may cause several types of cancer when a person is chronically exposed.
  • Combustion: Hydrocarbons, alcohols, esters, and butane are some examples of highly combustible substances. These may cause fire when exposed to high temperatures or an ignition source.
  • Explosion: Some chemicals like nitrates, sulphur, and hydrocarbons can become explosive under certain conditions, like high pressure, high heat, or in the presence of catalysts. Sawdust and charcoal dust are also potentially explosive when released to the air and put in contact with ignition sources, like electrical sparks.
  • Radioactivity: Some heavy elements like plutonium, uranium, and radium are highly radioactive because their nuclei are too heavy to be stable. Many isotopes of otherwise stable elements are also radioactive, including carbon 14 and iodine 131. Consequently, the compounds they form are also radioactive. These radioactive substances are commonly used in power plants and in medical applications. The hazard here is that they may cause DNA mutations, or worse, radiation sickness.
Chemical hazard pictograms on test tubes
Hazardous chemicals are identified by a GHS pictogram, as shown here. You should familiarise yourself with these warning labels

To ensure the safe handling, storing, and transporting of hazardous chemicals, local, national, regional, and global regulations are enforced:

  • Manufacturing: Manufacturers are required to have environmental impact assessments and show compliance with specific protocols in mass-producing chemicals to avoid explosion, pollution, fire, and workers’ injuries or fatalities.
  • Storing: Many hazardous chemicals require special types of storage facilities in which the temperature, pressure, and other factors can be constantly monitored and adjusted. 
  • Transportation: Large pressurised containers are often used to transport volatile hydrocarbons like propane, butane, and methane. Routes and schedules must be carefully planned to avoid accidents.
  • Selling: Most hazardous chemicals can’t be sold to just anyone. Background checks and/or vetting are necessary to ensure that they will not be used for nefarious purposes.
  • Using: End users must also be careful about using some of the more common hazardous chemicals like paint, solvents, dyes, and cleaning agents. Always refer to the product’s hazard labels and safety information on how to store and use hazardous chemicals. 
Flammable chemicals in protection cabinet
Hazardous chemicals should be stored appropriately. For example, flammable chemicals should be stored in fire safety cabinets

How Can Chemicals Be Hazardous To Health?

Chemicals in general can be incredibly hazardous to health, but this potential to cause harm is massively increased when they are corrosive, poisonous, volatile or radioactive. Some chemicals, for example, can cause chemical burns and tissue damage, both externally and internally, such as in the case of acids and bases. These chemicals can also cause poisoning by interfering with the various metabolic functions of the body.

Some chemicals don’t produce immediately noticeable harm. In fact, it could take several decades of chronic exposure to certain chemicals before any significant health damage can be diagnosed. For instance, smoking is a common cause of many respiratory diseases, including lung cancer. The hazardous chemicals in cigarette smoke accumulate over time, rather than causing immediate harm. 

There are also some chemicals that we use or ingest regularly that aren’t classified as hazardous, but can still have harmful effects. Common examples include sodium chloride, sugar, caffeine, and even artificial flavourings. These all have the potential to damage our health over time if used carelessly or excessively. 

Close up of chemical bottle with toxic hazard label
Chemicals in general can be hazardous to health, but this potential to cause harm is increased when they are corrosive, poisonous, volatile or radioactive

What PPE Should Be Used When Handling Chemicals?

Many chemical manufacturing plants and chemical storage facilities have equipment that allows workers to indirectly handle the chemicals. This equipment includes pumps and tubings, pneumatic systems, conveyor belts, remote-controlled and programmable forklifts, drones, and various types of robotics. Using these, the need for direct handling of chemicals is minimised – but not totally eliminated.

There are situations where workers will have to handle hazardous chemicals. In these cases, they must wear personal protection equipment or PPE to minimise risks. The PPE may vary depending on the level of hazards, but some of the most commonly used PPE are corrosion-resistant and flame-resistant. 

  • Overalls: These are commonly made from chemical and water resistant fabrics that can be worn when working in the factory.
  • Aprons: Some aprons have anti-radiation linings of lead to prevent exposing the vital organs to ionizing radiations, like x-rays.
  • Ballistic suits: Handling unstable and explosive chemicals may require the wearing of anti-ballistic suits made from kevlar and layers of ceramics.
  • Footwear: Boots with steel toes are often necessary in a factory or laboratory.
  • Gloves: Gloves range from rubber gloves to kevlar gloves that are resistant to various types of corrosive and flammable chemicals.
  • Goggles or safety glasses: The eyes are highly vulnerable to chemical irritations. You need to protect them against fumes and chemical droplets by wearing goggles or safety glasses.
  • Face shields: These have similar functions as goggles, except the area of coverage is larger. Some are also ballistic resistant.
  • Respirators: Chemicals can be very noxious and harmful to the lungs. This is why respirators are sometimes necessary when handling highly volatile chemicals.

Disclaimer

All content published on the ReAgent.co.uk blog is for information only. The blog, its authors, and affiliates cannot be held responsible for any accident, injury or damage caused in part or directly from using the information provided. Additionally, we do not recommend using any chemical without reading the Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS), which can be obtained from the manufacturer. You should also follow any safety advice and precautions listed on the product label. If you have health and safety related questions, visit HSE.gov.uk.

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