Hazardous Materials: Classification, protection, and handling
Hazardous Materials: Classification, protection, and handling
Interview with Dr. Hans-Peter Fröhlich, Head of the Chemical Reactions and Measurement Technology Department, BGHW - German Social Accident Insurance Institution for the Trade and Distribution Industry
Many employers must safeguard proper care and handling of hazardous materials in the workplace. It is important to be informed about the dangers and ensure the protection of employees. We spoke with Dr. Hans-Peter Fröhlich about the dangers of carcinogenic (cancer-causing) agents and preventive measures in the workplace.
Dr. Hans-Peter Fröhlich
Dr. Hans-Peter Fröhlich, what are the frequently underestimated risks of handling hazardous substances in the workplace?
Dr. Hans-Peter Fröhlich: The risks generally depend on the respective hazardous materials. That is why it is crucial to be informed about the situation in the workplace, starting with the proper labeling of hazardous substances. The question becomes: What can I learn from these labels and informational elements? This enables you to assess the risks of hazardous materials. However, oftentimes the person who handles the hazardous substances does not always know how these may cause harm to his/her health, thus he/she may underestimate the risks.
Pumping gas is a real-life example: Most of us pump our own gas at the gas station to fill up our cars. Sometimes we spill some gas on our hands. Many people might not know that petrol contains benzene, which is classified as a carcinogenic substance, which means we should be very careful. And that's my point: You must stay informed about the substances you come across in everyday life and at work.
What has changed in the workplace over the past few years as it pertains to handling hazardous materials?
Fröhlich: It is encouraging that there is more available information – including communications provided by the DGUV (Deutsche Gesetzliche Unfallversicherung/German Social Accident Insurance). These days, people know more about handling hazardous materials safely, such as asbestos for example. Asbestos poses serious health risks and was often shoveled by hand in the past. Today, asbestos is banned (in the EU), but it is still present. Over the years, information regarding the health hazards of asbestos has increased. We know more about the dangers and have instituted the corresponding measures to handle the hazardous substance. There have been major changes as it pertains to the handling of hazardous materials.
Workers need to be aware of the potentially hazardous substances they could be exposed to on the job. That way, appropriate protective clothing can be worn.
How can employees be effectively protected in the workplace?
Fröhlich: The German Occupational Health and Safety Act (“Arbeitsschutzgesetz”, the German equivalent to OSHA) outlines specific procedures pertaining to the implementation of necessary protective measures as a result of hazard identification and risk assessment. Informed substitution is the easiest measure, meaning you replace the hazardous substance with a less hazardous alternative. However, this is not always easy to do. This subsequently necessitates an on-site assessment of the situation, including evaluation of hazardous air contaminants and hazardous substances that can get on the skin, for example. Personal protective equipment (PPE) should be worn to minimize exposure in these instances. Examples of PPE include items such as protective gloves or respiratory protection. The proper selection of PPE is based on the nature of the interaction and potential for the employee’s exposure to hazardous materials. Companies must provide and communicate this information in the form of a safety data sheet or safety precautions that employees should follow. Companies use these formats to instruct and provide guidance to help employees manage hazardous materials properly. It’s important that the instructions are understood and internalized because the protective measures for controlling hazardous substances must be adopted into daily routines without exception.
Why are preventive measures such as the GDA Hazardous Substance Check (GDA Gefahrstoff-Check) so important for companies?
Fröhlich: The GDA Hazardous Substance Check provides a practical tool with information about carcinogenic substances, exposure, and relevant protection measures. The GDA Hazardous Substance Check also provides examples and guidance on where you can find additional information if needed and it serves documentation purposes. These preventive measures are very important, which means you need to plan sufficient time to implement them. The GDA Hazardous Substance Check requires a certain level of prior knowledge or the proper assistance from occupational safety and health service experts to obtain a reliable assessment.
Even when handling wood, it is important to check whether hazardous substances could be released in order to protect workers.
Personal protective equipment like protective gloves can be an important factor to keep employees safe while working with various materials.
Which workplace settings are most likely to expose you to carcinogenic substances?
Fröhlich: First, assess your work environment. Office work rarely exposes you to hazardous materials, unlike work that involves handling chemicals, for example. Metal dust or chemically produced substances such as cytostatic drugs have the potential to cause cancer. In these settings, the proper labeling of the hazardous materials is essential to ensure carcinogens are immediately recognizable as such. What makes things “tricky” is that a block of wood is not dangerous, for example, but the wooden slat that is made from it can be carcinogenic. The same applies when you weld stainless steel.
What are three actions every company should take?
Fröhlich: That depends on the company. Large companies have workplace safety experts who know the requirements for handling hazardous substances. This is often a more difficult task for smaller companies as they have fewer employees. Hazard identification and assessment is always a key measure. It answers questions like: Do I know about potentially hazardous substances in the company? You use this as a basis to obtain information, evaluate exposures, and take proper measures.
What changes would you like to see when it comes to handling carcinogenic substances?
Fröhlich: I want both employers and employees to know exactly what hazardous substances they are handling. Employees should learn what the warning signs and symbols mean. And they should take an active role in demanding appropriate measures to reduce exposure. This is especially critical when it comes to handling carcinogenic substances, because cause and effect are not always immediately apparent. Effects often may take ten to twenty years to show up. My hope is that more people make awareness and understanding of workplace hazards an ingrained habit.