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September 13, 2013
Corrosives eating away at safety in your workplace? Train employees to work safely with the chemicals

Workers in a water treatment facility complain of bloody noses caused by constant exposure to sulfuric acid mist. Workers handling batteries notice their teeth corroding from exposure to battery acid. Workers overhauling helicopters are exposed to corrosive—and carcinogenic—hexavalent chromium fumes.

Are your workers in danger from corrosive chemicals? If so, give them the information they need to protect themselves.

Background on corrosives

Who needs to be trained? OSHA’s hazard communication standard requires you to train employees to work safely with the hazardous chemicals in their work area when they’re initially assigned to that area and when a new hazard is introduced. Workers can be trained in categories of hazardous chemicals, such as corrosives.

Why train workers on handling corrosives safely? Workers may know that corrosive chemicals pose a danger to their skin, but they may be less aware that these chemicals pose a threat of internal damage or of reactivity.

Corrosive chemicals: The basics

Instructions to trainer: Although it is acceptable to train workers on categories of chemical hazards, make sure to have on hand the safety data sheet (SDS) and required protective gear for any specific corrosives workers need to be aware of.

You may know that corrosive materials can be hazardous to your skin and eyes, but are you aware that they are also highly reactive when they come into contact with certain substances? Or that they can be extremely hazardous inside your body, too? The category of “corrosive chemicals” includes:

  • Acids, like hydrochloric acid and sulfuric acid; and
  • Alkalis, like potassium and sodium hydroxide, which are also called “bases” or “caustics.”

You may be exposed to corrosives through:

  • Inhalation. Breathing even small amounts of corrosive mists or fumes can cause nose, mouth, and throat irritation, and larger amounts can cause bronchitis or severe lung damage.
  • Ingestion. Most people would not intentionally swallow a corrosive liquid, but there have been instances—some fatal—when workers accidentally did so.
  • Eye contact. Splashing or spraying corrosives, or corrosive mists, can cause eye damage. Bases are particularly dangerous to the eyes.
  • Skin contact. Corrosive liquids or mists can cause contact dermatitis, burns, or blisters.

Besides their health hazards, corrosives are highly reactive. They can cause fires, explosions, or violent exothermic (heat-releasing) reactions (these often look like an explosion) if they come in contact with water or other chemicals or with combustible materials. Keep in mind that:

  • Acids react with many metals to release hydrogen, a highly flammable gas that can ignite in air.
  • Some acids are strong oxidizing agents (chemicals that support combustion by releasing oxygen) and can react violently when they come in contact with organic or other oxidizable materials.
  • Alkaline chemicals can be strongly reactive. Alkali solids in particular react violently to contact with water; this is why sodium metal is stored in oil.

Make sure workers know where their nearest eyewash and safety drench shower are—and how to activate them.

Use these safe work practices to protect yourself from corrosives:

  • Always check both the label and the SDS to learn the hazards of the chemical you are using.
  • Label corrosive chemicals with care. Because many are innocent-looking clear liquids, the label is vital to proper identification.
  • Store corrosives properly. Acids and alkalis should be stored separately because they can react violently with one another. Make it obvious from the way they’re stored that they are not for human consumption—acids and caustics stored in sports-drink bottles, for example, are an invitation for accidental ingestion.
  • Move containers of corrosives with care.
  • Use ventilation to reduce airborne exposures.

Also, wear protective clothing when you work with corrosives:

  • Wear chemical-resistant safety goggles to protect your eyes from splashing or spraying liquids and corrosive mists.
  • Wear protective gloves if you will be handling corrosive liquids.
  • Wear aprons, safety shoes, and face shields if you may encounter splashing or spraying corrosive liquids.

React quickly if you come into contact with a corrosive chemical:

  • If a corrosive chemical gets in your eyes, immediately flush your eyes with water for at least 15 minutes. Seek prompt medical treatment, especially for alkali exposures.
  • If a corrosive gets on your skin or contacts your mucous membranes, immediately flush affected skin under a safety drench shower, and remove any clothing beneath the level of contact.
  • If you swallow a corrosive chemical, do not induce vomiting. You could do additional damage to your esophagus, throat, and mouth. Drink water to dilute the chemical, and immediately seek medical treatment.

Conclusion

Corrosives pose multiple hazards to workers. Workers must follow safe work practices, wear protective equipment, and know how to react to exposure situations when working with corrosive chemicals.

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