Chemical risk: knowing it, preventing it and treating it...

Substances and compounds in the workplace: current legislation and best practices to adopt, starting from the choice of "ingredients"

Chemical risk in the workplace
Chemicals labeled with pictograms recognized by the REACH and CLP regulations (Photo: iStock)

With the expression chemical risk we refer to the possibility that some chemical substances present in the workplace can cause accidents or damage to the health of workers who are exposed to them.

Its definition is found in Consolidated Law on Health and Safety at Work (Legislative Decree 81/2008), which also establishes the obligations of the employer and the prevention and protection measures to be adopted in the presence of chemical agents. starting with an adequate preliminary risk assessment.

When they are present in the workplace chemical agents dangerous the employer is required to do the chemical risk assessment, that is, it must determine the degree of exposure of workers to these substances and establish the preventive or corrective measures to be implemented. It all starts with prevention, i.e. with a detailed analysis of the individual hazards present in the workplace.

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Chemical risk: what it is and how to manage it
Worker at a chemical-using plant wearing personal protective equipment (Photo: iStock)

What is chemical risk at work, for workers and in the workplace

La definition of chemical risk can be found in Article 221 of Legislative Decree 81/08, which defines the scope of application of the legislation on protection from chemical agents. Chemical hazards are defined as

"the risks to health and safety which derive, or may derive, from the effects of chemical agents present in the workplace or as a result of any work activity involving the presence of chemical agents"

The chemical risk also concerns the possibility of bring damage totechnology, for example following fires or material spills, but this aspect is not dealt with in the Consolidated Law, which concerns only the chemical risk in the workplace.

Limiting ourselves to what concerns the protection of workers exposed to chemical agents, two types of chemical risk can be distinguished:

  • risks for the health: that is, the possibility of developing occupational diseases following exposure to chemical agents carcinogenic or which may be toxic, corrosive, irritant, sensitizing or toxic to reproduction;
  • risks for the safety: or injuries deriving from fires or explosions of dangerous materials, such as flammable, explosive and oxidising substances and mixtures.

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Chemical risk: personal protective equipment in a vapor treatment plant
Worker wearing personal protective equipment: a necessary prevention measure in case the danger is not judged non-existent (Photo: iStock)

Chemical risk, current Italian and European Union legislation

In addition to Legislative Decree 81/2008, two different community regulations contribute to the definition and management of chemical risk in the workplace, the REACH regulation (Registration, Evaluation, Authorization of CHemicals) and the CLP regulation (Classification Labeling Packaging), which respectively deal with the production and labeling rules of chemical substances.

Specifically, Regulation (EC) 1907/2006, or REACH, determines the obligation to register chemical substances marketed in Europe at theEuropean Chemicals Agency. These substances, according to current legislation, must be accompanied by all the information that allows the product to be used without incurring risks to health and safety.

At this point the CLP Regulation intervenes, which provides the community indications for classification, labeling and packaging of the chemical substances potentially dangerous and defines the abbreviations and pictograms to be shown on the labels of chemical products.

Community and national legislation integrates in this sense what is reported by GHS, the System of classification and labeling of chemical agents approved at the UN Conference in Rio De Janeiro in 1992, which for the first time harmonized the various national classification systems in a single international code.

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Chemical risk: the symbols recognized by Italian and Community regulations
GHS (Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labeling of Chemicals) chemical risk icons indicating the different dangers associated with the use of chemical agents (Photo: iStock)

Chemical risk assessment to avoid latent and mandatory dangers

La risk assessment from exposure to chemical agents in the workplace is the responsibility of the employer, who is required to periodically update this assessment and to modify it in the event of significant changes or “when the results of medical surveillance show the need for it”.

As required by Article 223 of Legislative Decree 81/08, in assessing the chemical risk the employer must take into consideration:

  • le dangerous properties of the individual chemical agents, which must be communicated by the manufacturer through the relevant safety data sheet and appropriate documentation;
  • the level, the way and the duration of the exposure, for which the main ones must be analyzed in the first place routes of introduction of chemical agents in the human body, i.e. by inhalation and by skin absorption;
  • i occupational exposure limit values (VLEP) or the biological limit values ​​relating to the individual substances, which indicate the average concentration limit of achemical peopleairborne carcinogens and mutagens detectable in the breathing zone of a worker over a certain period of time;
  • the effects of preventive and protective measures adopted and any useful conclusions drawn from the health surveillance activities already started in the company.

Correct management of chemical risk essentially depends on the preliminary assessment, which always includes a detailed description of the preventive and protective measures adopted: the aim is not to know how to manage an emergency efficiently, but to limit or eliminate the chances of accidents and damage to health of the workers.

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Chemical risk: personal protective equipment
Personal protective equipment: a nurse's hands show a mask (Photo: iStock)

Chemical risk management: prevention and protection measures

The management of chemical risk is played out above all on the terrain of prevention: when an employer has to verify compliance with the VLEP limit values, it means that the preliminary risk assessment has recorded the possibility of dangers to workers' health.

If the risk is irrelevant, reads the INAIL Operating Manual, the regulations must be applied general preventive measures listed in Article 224 of the Consolidated Law, namely:

  • organization of processing systems in the workplace;
  • supply of suitable equipment;
  • minimization of the number of workers exposed to risk;
  • minimizing the duration and intensity of exposure;
  • minimization of the amount of dangerous agents present in the workplace;
  • adoption of adequate hygiene measures and appropriate working methods.

In all other cases specific prevention and protection measures for workers must be identified which include individual protection measures and in some cases health surveillance of the workers.

There are also corrective measures, which must be promptly adopted in the event that the threshold limit values ​​are exceeded, including the replacement of products used in the work process, the preparation of emergency management measures and adequate training of operators.

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Chemical risk: the replacement of dangerous chemical agents
Switching to green chemistry is among the most advocated solutions to avoid the risks associated with the use of hazardous substances (Photo: iStock)

"Treat" the chemical risk: the substitution of dangerous substances

Avoiding the use of dangerous substances is clearly the most effective way to avoid chemical risks: the replacement of chemicals harmful for the health of workers with other less dangerous ones it is an often decisive prevention measure, and for this reason it is indicated as a priority both by Italian legislation and by Community regulations.

The European Chemicals Agency itself provides an entire portal dedicated to replacement of hazardous substances with safer compounds, and there are several European databases dedicated to examining possible candidates to replace chloralkanes, parabens and other potentially harmful chemicals.

A search for Elizabeth Barbassa e Maria Rosaria Fizzano presented at the REACH conference in 2016 cites the exemplary case of replacement of phthalates, mainly used in the production of PVC items, including children's toys and medical devices.

By searching the various online public databases, it is possible to obtain at least 20 possible substitutes for bis (2-ethylhexyl) phthalate in a few moments, including vegetable oils and glyceryl triacetate, a colorless liquid widely used in the food industry.

Replacing one or more ingredients within a production process is certainly not the most immediate solution, e the impressive revolution that is going through the furniture sector proves it.

As the INAIL study underlines, it is still difficult to verify the compatibility of the Community proposals with the production reality of the Italian SMEs, but the elimination of dangerous substances from production processes remains the most effective solution for eliminating chemical risk, inside and outside the workplace.

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Substitution of hazardous chemicals in the workplace
Researcher handles test tube chemicals wearing personal protective equipment (Photo: iStock)