HazMat, Not Just a Fun Suit: Asking the Who, What, When, Where and Why in Hazardous Materials Safety


Multiple agencies, not just those that house a laboratory, handle hazardous materials as a day-to-day duty and abide by a series of protective strategies put in place to emphasize safety and injury-protection. From chemistry classrooms to hospitals, chemical plants to college laboratories, the aspects behind safety all abide by the same principles of mitigation, prevention, and preparedness. These may include requiring protective glasses, lab coats, wearing gloves or other careful handling implementation, and takes place when standard operating procedures emphasize the actions to protect oneself from harm caused by chemical burns, contamination, or other injuries due to reaction.  By law, they must also keep a material safety data sheet (MSDS), a frequently-updated document that inventories chemicals and dictates how they must be stored and handled properly. Knowing not only how to handle these materials, but also why you should handle them safely, will better inform those working with the materials to be certain they are paying attention. Whether you work with these materials directly or in a building that houses them (as most do), materials safety is critical to ensuring system-wide safety in case of an emergency.

The following four steps should be performed in order to fully comprehend hazardous materials safety in the workplace:

Hazard assessments determine the type of health effects associated with exposure to a chemical.
Dose-response: Assess the relationship between exposure and health effects.
Determine the level of exposure and how it varies across uses and individuals.
Risk characterization: Combines exposure and dose-response to estimate risks to people.

In addition to this, a most recent National Science Foundation publication entitled, “Strengthening Toxic Chemical Assessments” recommends the following to ultimately ensure safety:

1. Identify and incorporate variability in human exposure and vulnerability into health assessments, so that all people are better protected.

2. When information is missing or unreliable, use science-based default assumptions that protect health, rather than waiting for more data, to speed up the chemical assessment and decision-making processes. There should be a clear set of criteria for when to depart from default assumptions.

3. In assessing the risk of chemicals, incorporate information about the potential impacts of exposure to multiple chemicals. Consider other factors, such as exposure to biological and radiological agents, and social conditions.

4. Because the population is exposed to multiple chemicals and there is a wide range of susceptibility to chemical exposures, it cannot be presumed that any—even low level—exposures are risk-free. It should be assumed that low levels of exposures are associated with some level of risk, unless there are sufficient data to contradict this assumption.

Sidenote: When I performed a risk assessment of St. John’s Parish in Louisiana after a recent flood disaster due to a hurricane, I was surprised to find that the Emergency Operations Center named terrorist attacks as a top-five risk to prepare for in the parish. Upon further evaluation, most industrial plants must plan for an unforeseen large-scale, low probability risk such as terrorism due to the potential of widespread devastation due to hazardous materials and infrastructure collapse (depending on the properties of production at the plant).

Answering the five W’s allows you think critically about how to ensure safety for staff in a hazardous materials context.

Who: Whose responsibility is it to ensure chemical safety? It varies, but being sensible in not only handing over protective covering, but practicing effective training on hazmat should be the top priority for those who may come in contact on a departmental level. Ensure that the trainings answer the rest of the questions posted here.

What: What does the chemical do? What causes a reaction? If it comes in contact with your skin, what happens? Are there long-term health effects of working with these materials?

When: Has the material been updated on a federal level for additional hazardous issues?  When was it last used?

Where: Where are the materials stored? Does it need to be in a fire/chemical storage cabinet? What state is the container in?

Why: To save a person from harm, and maintain the safety of the building. Knowledge is power, especially in case of large-or-small scale events or contamination, and you use good, updated information to inform facility-wide reliable procedures (or else they become useless).

If you have more ideas on how to ensure hazardous materials safety in the workplace, please let us know by posting a comment!