Protecting workers against exposure to hazardous materials isn't easy. Only a small fraction of the estimated 650,000 chemicals have exposure guidelines or regulatory exposure limits. Many regulatory exposure limits are so old they may not protect worker health.
Then there's the problem of reaching small- and medium-sized companies. Even if every chemical had a protective exposure limit, few small- and medium-sized businesses have the expertise to evaluate employee exposure and establish appropriate controls. While enlightened employers realize effective health and safety programs enhance the bottom line, too few small employers make this connection. They see little incentive to invest in an occupational hygienist.
These are not new problems. They've been with us for decades. However, help may finally be on the way.
The United Kingdom's Health and Safety Executive (HSE, www.hse.gov.uk) and the International Labor Organization (www.ilo.org) are taking an innovative approach to worker protection--control banding.
Control banding uses a simplified risk assessment to identify appropriate controls for protecting workers from hazardous materials. It's a risk assessment that does not require an occupational health and safety professional; a risk assessment designed for the small business owner, line supervisor or employee.
Three rating factors lie at the heart of a control banding risk assessment--the chemical's hazard group, the amount used and the material's ability to become airborne.
A chemical's hazard group, designated by the letters A through E, is based on the chemical's health effects. Hazard group A, the least hazardous, includes simple irritants or chemicals with limited acute toxicity. At the other extreme is Group E, the most dangerous chemicals, like known carcinogens or respiratory sensitizers.
A chemical's quantity rating is either small, medium or large. "Small" applies to chemicals used in milliliter or gram quantities. "Medium" applies to kilograms and liters of material. If the operation involves tons or cubic meters of material, it qualifies as "large."
A liquid's ability to become airborne is based on its boiling point. Liquids with boiling points below 50 C are rated "high." A liquid with a boiling point above 150 C qualifies as "low." Liquids with boiling points in between are "medium."
These three factors--the hazard group, amount used and ability to become airborne--determine one of four levels of control required for worker protection (Figure 1):
1. General ventilation and good work practices
2. Engineering controls
3. Process containment
4. Special, seek professional help
Detailed control guidance sheets help the employer implement specific controls associated with each band.
Control banding is gaining momentum. The HSE's control banding Web site, "COSHH Essentials" (www.coshh-essentials.org.uk), helps small to medium businesses comply with the British Control of Substances Hazardous to Health (COSHH) regulations. A COSHH Essentials control banding assessment takes only a few minutes using just seven Web pages (Figure 2).
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The ILO sees control banding as a way to protect worker health and safety in developing countries (www.ilo.org/public/english/protection/safework/ctrl_banding). Employers in developing countries may not have Internet access. So the ILO's Chemical Control Toolkit (www.ilo.org/public/english/protection/safework/ctrl_banding) uses a one-page work sheet to guide the employer through an assessment.
Germany's GTZ (Gesellschaft f,r Technische Zusammenarbeit) integrated the Chemical Control Toolkit in their Chemical Safety Pilot Project (www.gtz.de/chs/englisch/index.htm). Funded by the Federal German Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development, the GTZ Chemical Safety Pilot Project focuses on improving chemical safety and sustainability in emerging countries. …