Chemical Management Guide


What is a chemical?

Every substance in our physical world is made up of chemicals including us. There are natural and man-made chemicals. Natural chemicals are found in the land, in our food, air and water. Man-made chemicals are often manufactured like drugs, cosmetics, household cleaners and industrial chemicals.  Both man-made and natural chemicals have hazards associated with them.

Why should we manage chemicals in our workplace?

Chemicals have physical, health and environmental hazards. If chemicals are not used, stored and handled properly, they can cause injury, illness, disease, fire, explosions, or environmental effects. Having a chemical safety program in your workplace will reduce health and safety risks, lower environmental impact, and reduce operation costs. Recent statistics tell us that there are increasing numbers of occupational illnesses and fatalities, caused by exposure to chemicals in the workplace. Work-related diseases are the main cause of occupational fatalities in all world regions.

What are the 3 principles to managing chemicals?

There are 3 common principles to managing chemicals:

  1. Identify the chemical hazard
  2. Assess the risk of exposure
  3. Control the risk posed by the hazardous chemical

What are the common themes to managing chemicals in the workplace?

When managing chemicals in the workplace, it is important to know the know the hazards of the chemical, assess the risk of chemical exposure, and control the risk of the chemical hazard so you can safely manage any chemical you work with.

Chemical Management & Chemical Regulations by Countries

Countries have regulations that guide the management of chemicals from production to disposal in the workplace and during transport to protect people and the environment.

Chemical Management Regulations in Canada

Canadian provinces and territories all have separate regulations that guide the management of chemicals, but there are common themes around protecting workers and protecting the environment across the country. Reviewing the regulations where you work is an important first step in chemical management. 

Chemical Hazard Identification and Creating a Chemical Inventory

Next is to identify the hazards of a chemical including physical, health and environmental by creating a chemical inventory. This can be done by reading the Safety Data Sheet for a chemical product.

Complete a Chemical Risk Assessment

Another theme after hazard identification is to complete a chemical risk assessment, to determine the risk to a worker from chemical exposure.

When the chemical risk is defined it needs to be eliminated or controlled.

Regulate Chemical Occupational Exposure Limits

Certain chemicals have regulated exposure limits called OELs or Occupational Exposure Limits and the chemical risk needs to be eliminated or controlled below those OEL levels. This can vary by country, province or state.

Monitoring Chemical Hazard Control Plans

Monitoring the effectiveness of chemical hazard controls and making modifications is the final part of this process in managing chemicals in the workplace.

What is an OEL?

Occupational Exposure Limits (OELs) are a regulated reference levels for specific chemicals that must be adhered to. They are based on the principle that for each substance there is a level of chemical exposure below which no harmful health effects are likely to occur. An OEL is a number for a chemical substance that represents the maximum airborne concentration of a toxic substance to which a worker can be exposed over a period of time without suffering any harmful consequences.

These occupational exposure limits are set out by many professional organizations around the world, such as the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists (ACGIH), and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) in the United States.

An OEL is never an absolute and the best approach is to always keep chemical exposures or the risk of a chemical hazard as low as possible.

What is ALARA in chemical management?

ALARA means As Low As Reasonably Achievable, in practical terms, means that chemical exposure should be eliminated or reduced as much as possible. It is a chemical safety principle designed to minimize radiation doses and releases of radioactive materials. The principle can also be applied to controlling exposure to carcinogens or allergens in the workplace. 

What types of hazards do chemicals have?

Chemicals have physical, health and environmental hazards. Physical hazards refer to chemical properties like flammability and explosiveness. Health hazards refer to chemical properties like corrosiveness, carcinogenicity, or toxicity to name a few. Environmental hazards refer to environmental properties like aquatic toxicity.

Where do I find the health hazards of a chemical on a safety data sheet?

The health hazard information of a chemical is always found on Section 2 of a Chemical Safety Data Sheet. Section 2 is known as Hazard Identification and includes the hazard classifications (physical and health), GHS hazard pictograms and related hazard statements.

Add in GHS pictogram images:

Chemical Health Hazed Pictograms

Health Hazard GHS Pictogram for WHMIS 2015
Acute Toxicity GHS Pictogram for WHMIS 2015
Hazardous Optional Environmental Ozone Layer GHS Pictogram for WHMIS 2015
Corrosive Chemicals GHS Pictogram for WHMIS 2015

What is a hazard vs. a risk?

Hazard and risk often get confused. A hazard is any source of potential damage, harm or adverse health effects on someone. In the case of a chemical, the toxicity of the chemical is the hazard, it cannot be changed as it is a constant characteristic. Risk is the probability or likelihood that a person will be harmed or experience an adverse health effect. If a chemical is the hazard, then the risk is the likelihood that it will cause poisoning or illness. Risk is a variable feature and can be controlled and minimized.

How do chemicals enter the body?

How chemicals enter the body is also known as the route of exposure. No chemical can cause adverse health effects without first coming into contact with the body.

Routes of entry for Chemicals

The routes of entry are:

  1. Inhalation

    Inhalation (breathing in) of contaminated air is the most common way that workplace products enter the body. 

  2. Ingestion

    Ingestion (swallowing) contaminated materials in the workplace is usually accidental and occurs if hands are contaminated. This is one of many reasons why there are rules around hand washing, not smoking, and not eating or drinking or chewing gum in the workplace. 

  3. Contact

    Skin contact with the eye or skin occurs at the point of contact with the chemical and can cause a chemical burn or tissue damage. Skin exposure is the second most common route of chemical exposure.

  4. Absorption

    Absorption is when chemicals enter the body through the pores of the skin and travel to certain organs like the liver where they can cause damage.

Injection is another route of chemical entry that is common in health care settings with accidental needle pricks.

Regardless of how the chemical enters the body once it gets into the bloodstream it will travel to and affect organs which may be far from the original point of entry. 

What makes a chemical harmful?

Chemicals can have physical, health and environmental hazards. There are several factors which can influence the degree of harm caused by a chemical. These factors include:

  • The amount of chemical 
  • The toxicity of the chemical
  • How frequently someone is in contact with the chemical
  • The length of time a person is exposed 
  • How the chemical enters the body

When assessing the seriousness of an exposure an occupational health professional needs to look at all of these factors. 

What makes a chemical toxic?

When a chemical is labelled as toxic, it means how poisonous it is. A chemical with low toxicity requires a large amount or dose to cause poisoning. A highly toxic chemical can poison with a very small amount or dose. The amount or dose of a chemical entering the body is a very important factor to determine if a chemical will cause a poisoning.

Scientists use animals to determine how toxic a chemical is.  Most chemicals can cause both acute and chronic toxicity depending on the conditions of exposure. The adverse acute and chronic health effects caused by the chemical can be quite different. It is not usually possible to predict what the chronic toxicity of a chemical might be by looking at its acute toxicity, or vice versa.

How do you identify health hazards on an SDS?

Section 2 is titled Hazard Identification, and this is where you can find the health hazards listed for a product. This would include the health and/or physical hazard classification of a substance and the related GHS Pictogram(s). The signal word, “Warning” or “Danger” for the product to alert the reader to the severity of the hazard. Hazard statements with standardized phrases to describe the nature of the hazard posed by a hazardous product. Precautionary statements are standardized phrases that provide advice on how to minimize or prevent adverse effects resulting from exposure to a hazardous product or resulting from improper storage or handling of a hazardous product.

What is the short-term (ACUTE) AND long-term (ChronIC) health effects of exposure to chemicals?

In the workplace, we often interact with the same chemicals on a regular basis or we use chemicals only once for maintenance or a non-routine task. This is why we study the short-term and long-term affects of chemicals on the body.

Chronic Chemical Exposure in the Workplace

Long-term or chronic exposure is repeated contact with the same chemical day after day over many years. This can lead to poisoning and damage certain organs. Chronic toxicity often occurs after many years of exposure.

Acute Chemical Exposure in the Workplace

The other type of chemical interaction in the workplace is a one-time exposure known as short-term or acute exposure.  If the chemical is highly toxic even a one-time exposure can overwhelm the body. The understanding of acute toxicity comes from studies with animals exposed to relatively high doses of the chemical. Accidental chemical exposure, spills and emergencies also cause acute toxicity in humans. The health effects may be temporary, such as skin irritation, dizziness or nausea, or they may be permanent: blindness, scars from acid burns, mental impairment and so on.

Acute toxicity is often seen within minutes or hours after a sudden, high exposure to a chemical.

Why is a Chemical Inventory Important?

It is important to take stock of all your chemicals onsite and purge what is no longer required. Having an accurate inventory benefits many areas of your health, safety and environment program. Here are 10 reasons to start taking a chemical inventory:

  1. Dispose of obsolete chemicals to minimize the type and the quantity of chemicals in storage. Some chemicals have an expiry date and their chemical state changes over time to become reactive or explosive.
  2. Dispose of chemicals not used in the last year. These pose unnecessary hazards in your workplace.
  3. Ensure PPE inventory and other controls matches the hazards of your chemical inventory.
  4. Check if your emergency plans are up-to-date. If there is an incident do you have an awareness of what exactly is onsite and where it is stored?
  5. Be aware of all physical, health and environmental hazards on-site.
  6. Ensure your SDS Binder matches the product inventory.
  7. See if you can eliminate or substitute chemicals? See if you require additional monitoring or exposure tracking for chemicals of concern. Do you need additional communication plans (i.e. code of practice, exposure control plans)?
  8. Evaluate if storage of your chemicals is compatible, secure, and properly labelled.
  9. Check if training/education needs to be updated for the hazards on hand.
  10. See if you can optimize chemical purchasing.

Why is it important to use GHS labels on chemical containers?

Chemical GHS labels make you aware of the physical and health hazards of a product. They also communicate how to work safely with a product. WHMIS and HazCom have similar standards on the need to label all chemical products at the worksite. GHS labels need to be legible and in good condition. Supplier labels should be on every chemical container as they enter your worksite. Workplace labels are used if a chemical being made at the workplace is being used in the workplace and needs labelling. If a product is being decanted or transferred form a large container into a smaller container. And to replace worn or faded supplier labels.

What are guidelines to chemical storage?

See the PDF on Chemical Storage Guidelines.