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Chemical hazards

What are chemicals?
Three main chemical states
Common chemical hazards
What does the law say?
Consumer product symbols
General tips for chemical safety
Controlling chemical hazards in the workplace

What are chemicals?
Most people automatically associate chemicals with scientists in laboratories, but chemicals are also found in many of the products we use at work and at home. While they have a variety of beneficial uses, chemicals can also be extremely harmful if they are misused.

Here are some examples of commonly used household products that can damage your health or cause a fire or explosion if used incorrectly:

cleaning products such as toilet cleaners, disinfectants, mildew remover and chlorine bleach
art supplies, such as paint thinner and pottery glazes
garage supplies, such as parts degreasers and cleaning solvents
office materials, such as photocopier toner

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Three main chemical states
All chemicals exist in one of three states: solid, liquid or gas.

A solid has shape and form, whether it's a dust particle or a steel pipe.
A liquid is a formless fluid. It takes the shape of its container, but doesn't necessarily fill it. Solvents and oils are examples of chemicals in liquid form.
A gas is a formless substance that expands to occupy all the space of its container. Oxygen and carbon monoxide are examples of chemicals in gaseous form. Gases are usually invisible, but they may be detected in some cases by their taste or smell.

Some chemicals move from one state to another with a change in temperature or pressure. Water is a chemical which is normally a liquid but becomes a solid at temperatures below 0 degrees Celsius.

Knowing the physical states of hazardous chemicals is important factor in understanding their health effects. The physical state of a chemical determines which route it may use to enter the body. For example, a gas may easily enter the body by inhalation, while liquids are more likely to be absorbed through the skin. The fact that chemicals may change their state during work processes that involve changes in temperature and pressure makes it all the more important to take all the possible states of a chemical into account.

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Common chemical hazards
Specific types of chemicals have been associated with harmful health effects. Common chemical hazards include:

skin irritation, disfiguring burns, eye injury or blindness caused by corrosive chemical products
toxic by-products, such as vapours and fumes, caused by mixing incompatible chemicals
serious burns from flammable solvents that catch on fire
injury from exploding containers, such as spray cans
poisoning from accidental swallowing, especially with young children

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What does the law say?
There are several laws that relate to chemicals in the workplace. Two of the most important laws are:

The Workplace Hazardous Material Information System (WHMIS)
The Consumer Products Act and Regulations

WHMIS applies to "controlled products" that meet the government's criteria for a hazardous material. The WHMIS regulation requires labelling, material safety data sheets (MSDS) and training for staff who work with controlled products. WHMIS applies only in the workplace and does not apply to chemical products that you buy for your personal use from a grocery or hardware store.

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Hazardous substances in the workplace will be labelled with these WHIMIS symbols:

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The Consumer Products Act and regulations outlines the requirements for chemical products that you buy for your personal use. Consumer products can be dangerous, so make sure that you read the label on the product and follow the manufacturer's directions for use, clean-up and disposal.

Hazardous consumer products will have these symbols:

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General tips for chemical safety
Always read the label on the chemical bottle.
Always follow the directions and precautions listed on the label.
Never use a chemical if you are unsure what it is or how to protect yourself.
Always take the time to protect yourself and those working around you.
Always dispose of a chemical properly. Every municipality has a household hazardous waste drop-off location. For safe disposal of chemical products at work, contact your health and safety representative.

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Controlling chemical hazards in the workplace
Reduce or eliminate the use of hazardous chemicals whenever possible.
Maintain adequate ventilation systems to reduce concentrations of airborne chemicals.
Practicing good personal hygiene (e.g. washing hands) and maintaining regular workplace cleaning routines can reduce the amount of a chemical substance that is absorbed by a worker’s body. Learn how to avoid carrying hazardous substances home.
Introduce administrative controls to minimize exposure to chemicals (e.g. rotate workers through different jobs or locations, perform maintenance work in off-hours so that accidental release of toxic substances will affect fewer workers).
Use personal protective equipment and devices.
Maintain equipment in good order to prevent leaks and breakdowns that may release toxic substances.

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