Toxins found at work are poisoning us and ending lives on a global scale. A 2018 United Nations report stated that “one worker dies at least every 30 seconds from exposure to toxic industrial chemicals, pesticides, dust, radiation, and other hazardous substances.” In addition, workplace-related diseases, such as lung cancer linked to inhaling carcinogens on the job, “account for around 86% of all premature death.”
Toxins in the workplace can cause “debilitating and fatal lung diseases, neurological disabilities, and reproductive impairments such as infertility and inability to carry a pregnancy to term,” the UN report said. Given the deadly nature of toxic chemicals, minerals and other substances in our workplaces, it is imperative to know the nature of these toxins, how to minimize exposure, and what to do if there is a spill.
Below are common toxins in the workplace and how they could be affecting us.
A toxin is a substance that can be poisonous or cause harm to our health.Toxic substances come in many forms, such as fumes, liquids, gas, solids, and powders.
Common hazardous substances in the workplace include:
- Caustic substances
- Heavy metals, including mercury, lead, cadmium, and aluminum
- Petroleum products
Be careful when around these substances. Injuries can occur from contact with skin, breathing fumes, or even swallowing. Sometimes the injuries are noticed right away. However, sometimes the effects of prolonged exposure are not seen for many years.
Watch out for Benzene. The colorless liquid is found in products manufactured from coal and petroleum. It evaporates quickly. Benzene is harmful to the eyes, skin, airway, nervous system and lungs. Prolonged exposure can cause cancer. Benzene exposure is a major public health concern, according to the World Health Organization.
Workers who may be exposed to Benzene include:
- Workers at steel or rubber factories
- People who work in printing or with printing inks.
- Firefighters or those who come in contact with toxic smoke
- Workers at gas stations, shoe-making or repair
- Laboratory workers
The best way to minimize exposure to Benzene is to understand it. Read safety sheets provided by your industry and place of employment. Be familiar with your workplace procedures concerning it. The chemical is so serious that experts recommend first responders to a spill should wear a self-contained breathing apparatus and a protective suit until they know the severity of the spill.
Crystalline silica “is a basic component of soil, sand, granite, and many other minerals.” The hazard comes when particles break down so small they can be inhaled. Workers who chip, cut, drill or grind objects that house crystalline silica are especially at risk. This includes abrasive blasting, foundry work, stone-cutting, rock drilling, quarry work, and tunneling.
Breathing in the substance can cause cancer and even silicosis. Workers should wear protective equipment when working with crystalline silica to avoid inhalation.
Heavy metal poisoning occurs when certain heavy metals accumulate in toxic amounts in the soft tissues of the body. The most common associated with poisoning are lead, cadmium, arsenic, and mercury.
Cadmium (Cd) is a metal found in zinc ores. It’s commonly used for batteries, alloys, coatings (electroplating), solar cells, plastic stabilizers, and pigments. Light-weight electronic devices often use batteries containing cadmium. As the use of solar energy increases, the prevalence of cadmium will also likely increase.
Workers in manufacturing and construction are more likely to be exposed to cadmium. It’s highly toxic. Exposure is proven to cause cancer. Systems most targeted are the respiratory, cardiovascular, renal, gastrointestinal, neurological and reproductive systems.
Ancient humans made tools from inorganic lead, a malleable, blue-gray, heavy metal. Consequently, lead caused the first recorded occupational disease. Lead is still used today, especially in storage batteries.
Painters, battery plant workers, welders and solders, and lead production workers should take extra care to avoid exposure to lead. Some plumbing fixtures, rechargeable batteries, brass or bronze objects, and radiators have lead.
Chronic exposure can result in impaired kidney function, cardiovascular diseases, nervous system, and neurobehavioral effects, and decreased cognitive function.
Personal protective equipment should be worn when working with lead. Be extra vigilant with hygiene. Keep your work area tidy and dispose of the lead at the end of the day per management’s instructions. Make sure to wash your hands and face as well as scrub your nails before eating, drinking or smoking.
Understand your employer’s training on working with lead. When directed, attend medical appointments required by your employer to check the lead levels in your blood.
What if a toxic chemical spills?
Due to the myriad anatomic components in toxic chemicals, there is no one solution to a chemical spill. Some spills are considered “simple” and can be cleaned up by internally. Others are complex and require outside resources, such as a mercury spill. Evaluate the quantity and toxicity of the spill and the potential harm to persons and the environment before attempting to clean up the spill yourself.
Be sure to prevent the spread of dust and vapors. Where possible, neutralize acids and bases. Control the spread of the liquid and then add an absorbent, such as cat litter to absorb the spill.
For spills of powders or solid materials, experts recommend you add a dust suppressant. Package up the spill waste and dispose of it according to the instructions in the chemical Safety Data Sheet. Then decontaminate the area.
Since each spill is different, seek expert advice.
Chemicals at Work
Toxins are not limited to trades like smelting and painting. Even office workers can be exposed to subtly present toxins. For example, the air freshener in the bathroom may contain phthalates – an endocrine disruptor. Companies often don’t disclose the presence of phthalates in their hand soap, dish soap, toilet paper, shampoo, and other products.
Ask management if you can use fragrance-free products and natural cleaning products to limit exposure to toxins found in everyday products.
Toxins are found everywhere. Do your research to protect yourself on the job from hazardous substances.