In a chemical industry, an operator was pouring a sack of chemical powder into the hopper (funnel-shaped device to move materials) of a blending machine. The charging took place when a welder was installing a sign board within the vicinity of the hopper. As soon as the welder started a test spark, a spark fell into the hopper and a flash fire occurred. The operator who was loading the chemical powder suffered burns and sustained cuts while escaping from the fire.
In another incident, solid waste cakes were fed into the rotary kiln of an incinerator through a supply nozzle. After its combustion, the formed ashes were to be channeled into a slab box. But the control panel indicated an abnormal drop in the temperature within the kiln, hence two workers decided to carry out a site inspection. When they opened the slab box for inspection, the two workers came into contact with the discharged hot liquid that were observed at the base of the kiln. Where one worker succumbed to burn injuries, other ended up being hospitalized for a long time.
Both of these examples make us realize the intensity of the work environment in a chemical industry. Where one incident emphasized on the importance of risk assessment, other focused on the process hazard analysis before beginning any task. Although the finished products in the chemical industry are used for a variety of industrial applications, chemicals can prove life-threatening and dangerous to healthy workers who are inhaling and absorbing them during the production process.
Chemicals are used virtually in every man-made product and have been an indispensable part in human life, sustaining activities and development, preventing and controlling diseases. Being the third largest industrial sector in the world, its workplace health and safety requires the combined effort of OHS specialists, occupational hygienists and health practitioners.
More than two thousand casualties from a methyl isocyanate leak in Bhopal, India in 1984 drew world’s attention to serious hazards in the chemical industry.
Be it exposure to hazardous substances, fire and explosions, contact with hot objects, falls from heights and caught in objects, risks in chemical industry are immense.
Health and safety concerns
Areas of concern in this industry include:
- Dangerous materials – Explosives, gases, inflammable liquids, toxic, infectious and oxidizing substances
- Hazards of pressure vehicles – Leakage, failure, design defects, corrosion
- Hazards in unit operations – Surface fouling and leakages, mixing of fluids, dust releases and explosions
- Corrosion hazards – Weakening and falling of structures, spill and toxic releases, bursting of vessels due to corrosion
- Confined space – Oxygen deficiency, possibility of electrocutions, lack of ventilation
- Sampling and gauging – Splashes and spillages in sample collection, dip gauging of flammable and corrosive liquids, exposures due to breaking of sight glasses and glass level indicators
Devastating effects can be prevented – but they require proper awareness and planning. Working personnel must be trained – before laying out certain rules and guidelines, identification of the chemical hazards remains prime. SOP trainings, PPE trainings and post information delivery to supplement the SOPs help when chemicals require specific handling instructions.
Proper labelling can potentially save lives of many – visibility of the chemical hazards on the exterior can alert workers in advance. Chemical locations must be regularly assessed – exhaust vents might be required in the areas depending on the chemicals used.
Risk assessment, job hazard analysis and permits play a vital role – they create a chain of responsibility and prevent situations of emergency. Their checklists address all the safety protocols and safe procedures; be it hygiene, cleanliness, PPE usage, unexpected circumstances (fires, explosions).
Last is practice and practice. Fire and chemical spill drills will hone the skills taught during the trainings. In case of emergencies, they will be aware of their roles and functions that can mitigate harm to themselves and their coworkers.