Friday, October 26, 2012

Occupational Health: Protecting workers Against Chemical Exposures

Infection Control Today recently ran an article written by Kelly Pyrek, with the above title that highlights the risks of chemical exposure to healthcare workers.

The author noted that "Occupational exposure to chemicals is common and frequent in hospitals" and went on to say that self reported exposures tend to be significantly under reported. The article looked at both respiratory and dermal exposures. Respiratory exposures arose in particular from sprayed cleaning chemicals and not only resulted in irritation but twice the rate occupational asthma compared to the general work environment. Occupational Asthma was especially prevalent among healthcare workers involved in medical instrument cleaning and exposed to general cleaning products and disinfectants. Dermal exposures mainly arose via contact with the hands due to inadequate protection.

The importance of using personal protective equipment (PPE), and receiving proper training on how to use it was emphasized including gloves, goggles and masks. Some discussion was also given to the use of alternative "Environmental Cleaning Chemicals" but efficacy concerns limit what can be used. The article summarized that there are many actions that can be taken involving different chemicals, modified work practices and better training that can have a major impact.

ChemDAQ has often stressed the importance of workers being aware of the risks of exposure to sterilant chemicals and this article shows that even common cleaning chemicals present a health risk to workers. Patient Safety is of paramount concern in healthcare, and the prevalence of hospital acquired infections has resulted in greater emphasis on disinfection and cleaning. Unfortunately, it is all too easy for hospital administrators to focus so much on patient safety that the safety of their employee gets over looked.

As the NIOSH NORA report stated "The HCSA sector is burdened by the historical and entrenched belief that patient care issues supersede the personal safety and health of workers and that it is acceptable for HCSA workers to have less than optimal protections against the risks of hazardous exposures or injuries." However, there are signs that the old ways are changing. Recent articles have discussed this issue, and more enlightened institutions know that patient safety and employee safety go hand in hand.

It almost goes without saying that any chemical used to kill a broad spectrum of microbial life is likely to have adverse effects on people exposed to it. Some of the effects will be immediate, others may take longer to become apparent. This article in Infection Control Today is valuable in informing people that occupational exposure to even every-day cleaning agents can have adverse effects. Disinfectant and cleaning chemicals provide life saving functions in healthcare, but whenever these chemicals are employed it is important to assess the risks, develop work practices to minimize exposure, provide adequate PPE, and train workers how to use these chemicals safely.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

The ECHA is a Valuable Source of Chemical Safety Information

Often users, managers and industrial hygienists want to know the hazards associated with the chemicals that they use. There are many resources available for information on chemical hazards, including governmental and private sources. One of the more comprehensive sources is the European Chemical Agency (ECHA). The ECHA provides a lot of information in a relatively simple to use format; but this database is not widely known on this side of the Atlantic.

The ECHA has the goal to be the preeminent source for chemical safety information in the world. This agency was created under the European Union’s REACH program. REACH stands for the Registration, Evaluation, Authorization and Restriction of Chemical substances and went into law June 2007. Manufacturers and importers are required to gather information, including safety information, on the chemicals they manufacture, and to provide it to the ECHA which in turn provides public access to this information via an on-line searchable database. This database is a great resource for anyone looking to find safety information about chemicals commonly used in the workplace. Using peracetic acid (PAA) as an example, the ECHA search engine for hazardous chemicals is available at Simple enter “peracetic” into the search line and click on the disclaimer box brings up a link to the dossier for PAA. Click on view to access the information. The information is divided into nine general categories:

    General Information

    Classification and Labelling

    Manufacture, Use & Exposure

    Physical and chemical properties

    Environmental fate and pathways

    Ecotoxicological Information

    Toxicological information

    Guidance on safe use

    Reference substances

For those people who want more general information, the Guidance on Safe Use Section provides general advice on using PAA, first aid measures, labels, exposure levels (for acetic acid and hydrogen peroxide) etc.

For those people who want more detail, for example information on research conducted on the chemical safety aspects of a particular compound, this level of information, chemical compatibility, is also available. Clicking on Toxicological Information generates the following submenu:

    Toxicological information.001

    Toxicokinetics, metabolism and distribution

    Acute Toxicity

    Irritation / corrosion


    Repeated dose toxicity

    Genetic toxicity


    Toxicity to reproduction

Selecting Acute Toxicity

    Acute toxicity: oral

    Acute toxicity: inhalation

    Acute toxicity: dermal

    Acute toxicity: other routes

The Acute Toxicity Inhalation section gives a list of 14 summaries of research studies on the acute inhalation toxicity of PAA. The long menu structures above are included in order to give an idea of how much information is available at this website.

This website offers a lot of safety information in summary form that is easy to use for the individual who just needs general guidance, but the website also has a lot of other information for those people who need more detail.