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Chemical Safety 101

What should a beginner know about chemical safety on Day 1 of a new job?


Photo: Lion Technology Inc.

Responding is Lee Ann Coniglione, training content developer, Lion Technology Inc., Sparta, NJ.

New workers face substantially greater risk of on-the-job injury and illness than other employees. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that, in 2020, 114,000 workers missed time because of an injury or illness within 90 days of their first day on the job. At the same time, chemical management poses ongoing challenges for organizations of all sizes; OSHA’s standard on hazard communication (1910.1200) ranks near the top of the agency’s annual list of most frequently cited standards.

Given new hires’ vulnerability to injury and illness, how can safety leaders start new employees on solid footing regarding hazardous chemicals? Here’s how organizations can shape their safety culture to protect new employees and prevent chemical releases, exposures and other incidents – starting on Day 1.

Life safety scenarios

Your first priority for chemical safety should be life safety scenarios, including contingency planning, evacuation routes and communication during emergencies.

This kind of emergency planning is important in every workplace. When hazardous chemicals are present, it’s crucial. They can turn a bad situation worse – sometimes much worse, and before you can react.

Experience, attitude and emotion

Attitude and emotion play important roles in chemical safety, too.

Some new hires will come with zero knowledge about chemical hazards, labeling or vocabulary. Others show up with some level of awareness or previous training – but may be unfamiliar with the chemicals at your site.

Even experienced new hires may feel uncertain during their first days. New employees often feel pressure to prove themselves immediately and may hesitate to ask questions or admit knowledge gaps.

One goal for Day 1 is to immediately establish safety as a core company value. This can help lower any employee anxiety and stress, as well as remind them that the prime objective is to return home safe.

Hazcom and lab safety

OSHA maintains two standards related directly to chemical safety. Both require training for new employees upon initial assignment to the work area.

The agency’s hazcom standard requires employers to provide workers with information and training about hazardous chemicals in the work area. In part, employees must be trained to recognize and read hazard labels and Safety Data Sheets on chemical containers they handle or use.

OSHA’s standard on controlling chemical exposure in laboratory settings (1910.1450) highlights the importance of hazard recognition and employee training as well. It also lays out requirements for a “chemical hygiene plan” detailing procedures, equipment and more to protect workers.

Knowing which of OSHA’s chemical-focused worker protections apply, and having a plan to provide required training, is crucial to compliance.

In addition, there are standards on hazardous chemicals in Subpart Z of Part 1910, OSHA’s regulations on personal protective equipment, emergency response, process safety and more.

If you’ve identified relevant training requirements as well as addressed the basics of hazard labels and SDSs – and employees feel protected by your culture on Day 1 – you’re off to a strong start.

Editor's note: This article represents the independent views of the author and should not be considered a National Safety Council endorsement.

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