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Chemical Exposure and How it Affects You

Chemical Exposure and How it Affects You

"Prevention is better than cure” (Desiderius Erasmus, 1500). Such a quote is often used in a medical context – indeed, from an occupational context, the same can be said.

Most of the population is exposed to chemicals as part of the daily routine. Those at the highest risk, are involved with the manufacturing process. Chemicals can enter your system through breathing, consuming them, or even through the skin, especially when not wearing approved personal protective equipment (PPE) and not undergoing regular periodical surveillance for possible harmful damage caused by frequent exposure.

How is the human biological system affected?

Humans are unique among our species, and so, the way we react to chemical exposure varies between individuals. Where some individuals may come into contact with chemicals, even harmful varieties, and never get affected –others, and perhaps the majority of the population, fall ill due to higher sensitivity. Certainly, the longer the period of exposure, the higher the risk of getting sick. Health effects to exposures to such chemicals can affect the following bodily systems:

  • The respiratory system, causing harmful damage to the lungs, nasal passages, and the air pipe.
  • The renal system can be affected as well, with damage occurring to the kidneys, bladder, and ureter (urinary pipe).
  • The cardiovascular system, affecting the heart, veins, and the blood, can lead to serious complications later in life.
  • The reproductive system whereby the uterus in women, bladder, and other reproductive parts.
  • Further systems that can be affected by exposure include the immune system which may become compromised, and reducing their effectiveness to fight off viruses.
  • The nervous system, which controls speech, touch sensation, and motor functions may also be affected and long-term effects can include decreased speech, reduced mobility, and loss of touch sensation.
  • The skin forms a barrier to germs and other foreign substances from entering the body. It also prevents dehydration and regulates our body temperature. Exposure to contaminants can include rash, pigmentation, irritation, and eczema.
  • The Hepatic system (Biles), is the function that breaks down foods and stores nutrients that are important for making proteins your system requires. Such proteins allow blood to clot (stopping bleeds) and decontaminate the system from drug and chemical toxins. The system can become compromised, resulting in possible liver damage, tumors, and fat accumulation around vital organs.

Extended exposure leads to long-term problematic health issues and can become grave if not monitored and prevented.

What is considered Hazardous Chemicals?

Hazardous Chemical Agents (HCA), are of the most contaminating varieties and can include the following chemicals:

  • Asbestos
  • Cadmium
  • Benzene
  • Soot
  • Chlorinated Hydrocarbon Solvents (organic, EDC, Trichloroethane)
  • Methylene chloride
  • Formaldehyde
  • Toluene
  • Chemicals present in paints
  • Silica

There are many examples of HCA’s in the workplace and can be classified from the Occupational Health and Safety Act of South Africa in terms of risk exposure: Carcinogens – Category 1A and 1B and 2 which are cancer-inducing exposures;
Corrosives – Category 2 (visible and irreversible destruction); Irritants – Category 1A, B and C and 2A (reversible exposures); Mutagens -Category 1A and 1B and 2 (Chromosome damaging); Sensitizers – Category 1(causing allergic reactions) and Teratogens – Category 1A and 1B and 2 and lactation (contributing to birth defects).

Many of the listed HCA’s fall into these categories and extreme caution should be taken to prevent exposure as far as possible. (Table 4; Occupational Health and Safety Act,1993:14).

Methods to prevent exposure to HCA’s Under the Occupational Health and Safety Act, 1993 – Regulations for Hazardous Chemical Agents are outlined to ensure workforce safety and prevent exposure to HCA as far as possible. With revisions as recent as March2021, the outline revises that employers must ensure that they carry out initial surveillance of employees by Occupational Health Practitioners immediately before or in a 14-day timespan from commencing employment which includes but may not be limited to:

  • Evaluation of medical and occupational history
  • Physical examinations
  • Essential specific testing is outlined by the practitioner in line with job-specific requirements.

Such medical surveillance should not be limited to an initial examination and should be repeated within a period not exceeding one-to-two years after being conducted, per organizational Health and Safety Policy, or recommendation of Occupational Health practitioner. An employer cannot allow an employee to carry out work in the workplace if they have been declared unfit by the Occupational Health Practitioner in which they would be exposed to the environment that could affect the exclusion or referred concern. Employees may be permitted to return to work on being declared fit or then once an Occupational Health Practitioner has reviewed the patient after necessary monitoring or treatment has been carried out. The Act also outlines, how the employer must record and investigate the incident preventing an employee from being declared fit for duty to comply with regulation 8 of General Administrative Regulations of the Act.

Record keeping remains a requirement for employers and includes results of all Health and Safety assessments, medical surveillance reports, and other internal environmental factors such as air monitoring – such information may only be made available to Occupational Health Practitioners and the head of Health and Safety for the organization.

Inspections may occur on random schedules by Health and Safety inspection divisions of national authorities. Failing to keep records of medical surveillance can lead to legal liability incurred by an organization.

Such measures may include, safe zone demarcating areas, warning signs placed invisible areas and would also include a safety file, outlining compliance in terms of SHE planning, risk assessments, Material Safety Data Sheets for hazardous chemicals and materials used, and other health and safety documentation that ensures an organization is compliant with legislation.

What is mandated by the new regulation?

The recent revisions to the HCA regulations, obligate employers to monitor the exposure of their workforce in terms of hazardous agents. Further to this, it is the employer’s responsibility to take reasonable safeguards to ensure that exposure levels are kept below an OEL-ML (maximum concentration level) and an OEL-RL (restricted limit) respectively.

Organizations whose employees are handling, using, manufacturing, or even storing HCA’s (that are known to implicate one’s health), are mandated to have such employees undergo medical surveillance by occupational health professionals. It is also mandated that ensuring that such risk assessments are conducted to determine the likelihood of exposure to an HCA(usually in the form of Annexure 3 documents), together with known effects of said HCA must be carried out by an occupational health practitioner to determine if a medical surveillance program is necessary for the organization.

Medical surveillance is a required process to determine any change in employees’ health status due to exposure to harmful chemicals. Monitoring of employees is not limited to occupational medical testing, but also includes monitoring and interpretation of historical data for all employees which are derived from previous medical testing.

Medical surveillance is a required process to determine any change in employees’ health status due to exposure to harmful chemicals. Monitoring of employees is not limited to occupational medical testing, but also includes monitoring and interpretation of historical data for all employees which are derived from previous medical testing.

Medical testing, therefore, involves a combination of interviews, questionnaires, and other clinical assessments to detect and manage the presence of unfavorable health effects brought on by risk exposures within he workplace. Common tests include lung function tests, x-rays, and laboratory testing, for example, blood tests for a full blood count (FBC). The chemical substance regulations detailed within the regulations for hazardous chemical agents provide further scope for providing an employee who may be placed in an area of the workplace where exposures to HCA exist, with suitable information, instruction, and training on management and conduct concerning such HCA’s. These measures should be undertaken after consultation and directions of a health and safety committee. The employee must be informed, instructed, and trained in the form of written procedures that detail:

  • The names of HCA’s present in their workspace,
  • Information on potential harm such HCA’s may bring about,
  • Significant findings that an exposure assessment on the relevant HCA reveals,
  • Information on how to access relevant safety data sheets (SDS),
  • Information detailing what each part of a label on HCA details,
  • The work practice and procedures to be followed on usage, handling, storage, transport, spillage, and disposing of the specific HCA (emergency purposes and day-to-day), as well as personal hygiene concerning exposure to it.
  • The need for personal air sampling within the workspace, biological monitoring, and medical surveillance requirements,
  • Engineering controls instituted for personal protection,
  • All required and necessary personal protective equipment (PPE) and its maintenance,
  • Precautions necessary to be taken by the employee.

It should be noted that the employer and their appointed employee must agree, in writing, to all procedures instituted and ensure compliance from both parties.

Instituting preventative measures such as occupational medical surveillance, safe working environments, and safety files within the workplace, be it the plant, factory, or office, ensures the safety of your workforce and compliance of your organization in line with South African Legislation.

Professional Occupational Health Practitioners, and Health and Safety professionals should be consulted to ensure compliance with regulations to the Occupational Health and Safety Act, and the regulations for hazardous chemical agents therein.

Legal requirements

Legal requirements are mandated to employers concerning medical surveillance and monitoring of HCA’s and include incident investigations as well as reporting to relevant authorities. An employer must ensure that that all control equipment and their facilities are maintained in good working order and thorough examinations on both biological monitoring and medical surveillance are undertaken in periods not exceeding 24-months by approved inspection authorities.

Organizations are subject to unscheduled inspections by relevant authorities and therefore, internal audits should be conducted by appointed health and safety committees to ensure compliance is maintained.

South African Legislation mandates that employers undertake a common law duty toward their employees to take reasonable care of their safety by providing mandated health and safety programs, including medical, biological, and ergonomic surveillance. Employers found to be in breach of reasonable common law duties may be subjected to court mandates, which may award, at the cost of the employer, large compensations to affected employees if found to be contravening any regulations under the Acts and sub regulations thereof. Other legal implications may be brought forward against an organization and/or its owners for failure to comply with sub regulations, and if found guilty of contraventions, can include fines, or imprisonment for a period not exceeding six months. If an employer is found to be in continuous breach, additional daily fines or extended imprisonment may be instituted until the offense is rectified.

With the current Covid-19 pandemic gripping the world, occupational health and indeed, general health has been cast in a spotlight and with it, a mind shift of conscious awareness in building compliance to ensure health and safety at large. If you would like to know if you are compliant, or are interested in ensuring that your workforce is fit for duty, give Care Net Consultants a call today and they will help you get compliant and ensure your workforce and company’s safety is well in hand.

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