Chemical Safety: Working with Chemicals at Work

General Safety By Matthew Coombes

What is chemical safety and why is it important?

Chemical safety refers to the processes that we undertake to stay safe at work or at home when using chemicals.

Chemicals can refer to base products such as pure chemical compounds, or end products that we use everyday such as household cleaning products.

A good example of a chemical product used by both workplaces and individuals is resin.

Resin has become very popular for both commercial and domestic purposes due to its appearance, durability and unique features like being able to submerge objects in clear resin before it sets to create interesting effects.

It’s popular with businesses as a relatively cheap way to cast a durable floor on top of an existing floor, even concrete floors. From a design viewpoint, it can be used to incorporate small decorative objects into the floor, such as pressed flowers or pennies.

In domestic settings it has become a popular tool for hobbyist woodworkers and general arts and crafts due to the unique effects that you can create, for example ‘river tables’, encased objects as mementos and homemade versions of existing products such as dice.

However, resin gives off harmful toxic fumes, and even when fully cured you shouldn’t breathe in epoxy dust. So we need to take safety precautions when using chemicals like resin.

To find out how to safely use a chemical, we will often rely on a chemical safety data sheet.

Chemical safety data sheets

Chemical safety data sheets are created by the manufacturers of base chemicals, mixed chemicals, and the end products. The sheet includes a wealth of information relating to:

  • Manufacturer – Including emergency contact information
  • Hazards to human health
  • Hazards to the environment
  • First aid
  • Firefighting involving the chemical
  • Accidental release
  • Handling and storage
  • Suggested controls
  • Properties of the chemical
  • Stability/reactivity
  • Toxicology information

The manufacturer is required by UK law (and to export products) to create a safety data sheet in order to properly prepare any consumer that purchases the product for any eventuality which might occur from using it, and result in a negative effect. This could be a person using chemicals becoming unwell, a violent chemical reaction causing a fire, or a chemical reaching the water systems leading to an ecological disaster.

Finding a chemical safety data sheet

In the box – Many products come with a printed safety data sheet, or a link emailed/on a leaflet to visit to view the safety data information online.

From the supplier – Contact your supplier or the manufacturer and they should provide you with the safety data sheet.

On the internet – If you’re not sure exactly who made a chemical you have used, try to find an equivalent product’s safety data sheet to refer to. You can do this easily by using a search engine and searching for “[insert product name] safety data sheet”, e.g. “1H,1H,2H,2H-Perfluorooctanol safety data sheet”.

How to dispose of chemicals safely

How you dispose of a chemical safely will depend on several factors:

Local and national regulations – Specific local guidance can differ between areas, and national regulations may have a set procedure to follow for the disposal of certain chemicals. Check with your local authority before disposing of any chemicals in local waste.

The container for the chemical – If the chemicals have been stored for a while or in direct sunlight the condition of the container may have degraded. Before attempting to dispose of chemicals you should check to make sure that there are no chemicals on the outside of the container which people handling it could come into contact with, that the container is not cracked from being heated and cooled by the sun/a heat source, and that the container hasn’t been corroded or breached by rust.

Also consider the structural integrity of any container, especially if it has been dropped, pierced, or damaged in any way.

Transportation to disposal if required – Some chemicals can be highly volatile, and consideration for safely transporting a chemical to a permitted disposal centre is important.

Products such as Linseed oil are renowned for their ability to readily give off flammable gasses, these gasses can then ignite and cause a fire. Any chemical that readily gives off vapours may be an increased fire risk.

In addition to this, overfilling a drum/container with volatile chemicals can mean that there is not enough room (ullage) for the chemical to naturally expand. This can lead the vessel to become over-pressured and rupture. This is made more likely if the chemical is transported as the movement of the chemical during transportation may cause it to gain energy and expand.

If you are unsure of how to dispose of a chemical, contact the manufacturer to see if they have any advice, and failing that source a competent contractor with relevant knowledge of the chemical.

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