Every person who works with chemicals has a right to know the identities and hazards of those chemicals. The Laboratory Supervisor/Principal Investigator should make laboratory workers aware of the chemical hazards present in the laboratory. Environmental Health and Safety can offer additional advice and training. When working with chemicals, there are two important questions to ask:
How can the chemicals hurt me?
Chemicals have two general types of hazards: Physical hazards and health hazards. Examples of physical hazards include chemicals which may be flammable or combustible, explosive, shock-sensitive, oxidizers, or react violently with water or with air. Examples of health hazards include toxins, carcinogens, teratogens, irratants, and sensitizers.
In general, you can be exposed to a health hazard unless the chemical enters the body. There are four major routes of entry:
- Absorption – the chemical contacts the skin or eyes and causes immediate damage or is absorbed into the bloodstream
- Inhalation – the chemical is breathed and enters the bloodstream through the lungs
- Ingestion – the chemical is swallowed and enters the bloodstream through the gastro-intestinal track
- Injection – the chemical enters a break in the skin from a new or previous injury
How do I prevent chemicals from hurting me?
In general, employees working with chemicals are protected on three levels:
- Administrative controls are polices, procedures, guidelines, rules, or trainings that reduce the duration, frequency, or severity of exposure to the chemical
- Engineering controls are equipment or substitute products which reduce or eliminate the duration, frequency, or severity of exposure to the chemical
- Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) is the clothing, safety glasses, gloves, and other equipment worn by a worker to protect the worker from the hazards of a chemical. PPE does not reduce or eliminate the hazard.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) requires that MSDSs are available to employees who work with potentially harmful substances. A MSDS summarizes information about the material, including chemical components, hazard identification, first aid, spill, and fire fighting procedures, incompatibilities, safe handling and storage requirements, and disposal guidelines.
Workers should review an MSDS prior to working with a chemical. MSDSs should also be readily available for quick response to spills, medical emergencies, and other situations involving the chemical.
Material Safety Data Sheets are available online from most manufacturers. The following are links to the MSDS websites of common manufacturers of laboratory chemicals:
The best place to find an MSDS is from the chemical manufacturer. In the event the manufacturer is unknown or cannot be located, the Vermont Safety Information Resources has an MSDS search engine available.