The Risks of Hazardous Chemicals
In most meatpacking and poultry plants, refrigeration systems contain large amounts of the highly hazardous chemical ammonia, often exceeding 10,000 pounds of ammonia in a single plant. Poorly maintained refrigeration systems can result in releases of ammonia, causing serious injuries and deaths to workers of these facilities. Ammonia is corrosive to the skin, eyes, and lungs, and prolonged contact with high concentrations of ammonia can cause permanent injury or death. Ammonia is also flammable at high concentrations.
What Types of Hazardous Chemical Safety Measures to Look For
OSHA’s Process Safety Management standard, 1910.119, requires companies to determine if they have a threshold quantity of certain hazardous chemicals, or 10,000 pounds or more of flammable liquids or gases in any system within their facility. For ammonia, the threshold quantity is 10,000 pounds, an amount often exceeded in refrigeration systems of food plants. The employer must take steps to assure that ammonia refrigeration equipment, and other chemical systems
containing highly hazardous chemicals, is maintained and operated in a safe manner to prevent employee exposure and explosion hazards.
Methods for Reducing the Risk of Exposure to Hazardous Chemicals (Including Ammonia)
The OSHA Process Safety Management standard requires employers to:
- Develop and maintain written information which identifies the chemical and process hazards, as well as the equipment involved;
- Perform a process hazard analysis;
- Consult with employees and their representatives regarding the development of the plan, and the process hazard analysis;
- Train employees who operate or are involved in a process on the operating procedures, specific safety and health hazards, and emergency procedures;
- Ensure that contractors are trained on safe work procedures;
- Investigate incidents of chemical releases ; and
- Establish an emergency action plan for incidents involving releases of chemicals.
The chemicals that food workers come in contact with are primarily found in the refrigeration system, carcass washes, water disinfectants and cleaning products used by sanitation.
What Types of Chemical Hazards to Look For
Chemicals come in various forms and can affect the body in different ways. Various forms of chemicals include:
Dusts or particles which may be inhaled or swallowed, such as organic dust (feathers, bird droppings) found in live hanging operations in poultry plants;
Liquids which can be absorbed by and harm the skin, such as liquefied ammonia, cleaning compounds and battery acids;
Mistswhich can beinhaled, such as chlorine or cleaning compounds; and
Gases and vapors which can be inhaled, such as carbon dioxide and ammonia gas.
How a chemical affects the body depends on several things, including:
- The form of the chemical;
- How the chemical enters the body (by breathing in, swallowing, skin contact or absorbing through the skin);
- The amount of the chemical that you are exposed to; and
- The length of time of the exposure.
Chemicals can have either short-term or acute affects that show up right away. Many times, these acute effects go away when the exposure is removed. For example, breathing in too much carbon dioxide can cause rapid breathing, shortness of breath, headache and dizziness. When the carbon dioxide exposure is controlled to safe levels, the symptoms go away. However, sometimes exposure to too much of a chemical at one time, such as high levels of anhydrous (gaseous) ammonia, can be fatal.
Chemicals can also have long-term or chronic effects that do not show up right after an exposure. Many chronic effects result from being exposed to low levels of a chemical over time. An example of a chronic effect is lung cancer caused by exposure to asbestos which may not develop until up to 25 years after first being exposed.
What if workers are getting sick from a chemical at work?
The safety and health committee should take the following steps:
Identify the chemical(s). OSHA requires employers to maintain information on all of the chemicals that workers are exposed to on the job. (See OSHA Standards chart, page _____ Hazard Communication Standard, 29 CFR 1910.1200)
Ask for the material safety data sheet (MSDS) for the chemical(s) used where workers are getting sick. The information contained on the MSDS includes the product name; the hazardous chemicals in the product; the known health effects; and the physical hazards associated with the chemical.
Find out if OSHA sets a permissible exposure limit (PEL) for the chemical(s). The PEL is the amount of chemical allowed in the air by OSHA,r that workers can breathe in over the course of an eight hour work day. The specific chemical to which workers are exposed must be identified and exposure monitoring may have to be conducted by the company if workers are breathing the chemical and getting sick. PELs for many of the hazardous chemicals listed below can be found here on page _____ and in the OSHA standard, 1910.1000. A note of caution: Many times workers get sick when exposed to chemicals that, when measured in the air, are found to be at levels which are below the PEL. That is ,is, they are considered to be below the “legal limit” and therefore “at safe levels.” The company still should take action to eliminate or reduce the chemical exposures so that workers do not suffer adverse health affects.
Get the results of tests conducted by the company which measures how much chemical is in the air. These tests are called exposure monitoring. Workers and the union have the right to obtain these results through rights under OSHA standard, 1910.1020, Access to Employee Exposure and Medical Records (see Union Action page).
Listed below are some of the many chemicals that can be found in packinghouses, poultry plants and food processing plants:
|CHEMICAL||WHERE FOUND||HEALTH AFFECTS-ACUTE||HEALTH AFFECTS – CHRONIC|
|Ammonia||Refrigeration systems, chicken houses||Exposure to liquid can cause burns to skin, permanent eye damage. Burning of the nose, throat and lungs. Exposure to high levels can cause pulmonary edema or buildup of fluid in the lungs. Can be fatal.||May cause chronic irritation of nose, throat.|
|Carbon Dioxide||Dry ice, packaging||Rapid breathing, shortness of breath, headache, sweating, dizziness, shaking, unconsciousness, death.||None|
|Chlorine||Carcass wash, disinfectant in water||Exposure to liquid can severely burn eyes and skin and cause permanent damage. Irritation of the nose, throat and lungs. Tearing, runny nose, coughing, choking, chest pain. Nausea, vomiting, feelings of fatigue. Extremely high concentrations can cause pneumonia and death.||Irritation of lungs; Teeth corrosion; Acne-like skin|
|Cleaning Chemicals: Alkaline or caustic cleaners such as sodium hydroxide, soda ash, sodium orthosilicate; Acid cleaners: acetic, hydrochloric, phosphoric acids; Sanitizers: sodium hypochlorite, calcium hypochlorite, quaternary ammonium||Sanitation||Full strength or high concentrations of many of these chemicals are corrosive to all body tissue. Permanent eye damage upon contact, severe skin burns. Irritation of the nose, throat and lungs. Prolonged contact with more dilute solutions may cause skin irritation, dryness and cracking of the skin, irritation of nose, throat and lungs.||See Health Affects (Acute)
|Poultry Dust||Chicken houses; poultry plants: Receiving and live hang||Coughing, eye irritation, nasal irritation; headache, wheezing, chest tightness.||Decrease in lung function, chronic phlegm, chronic wheezing|
Methods for Reducing and Controlling Exposure to Chemical Hazards
The best approach to preventing exposure to chemical hazards is to remove the chemical from the workplace. When this cannot be done, controlling the hazard at the source is the most effective approach. Methods of controlling chemical hazards include:
Substitution: Replacing the hazardous chemical with a less dangerous one. This type of control can be used with cleaning compounds. If a particular cleaning compound is causing rashes or skin irritation, many times a less irritating or safer chemical can be used.
Ventilation: Keeps harmful chemicals out of the air. For example, local exhaust ventilation can be used around machines with super-chlorinated water spray to reduce the amount of chlorine that gets in the air. Enclosure of processes, such as the carcass wash, is an engineering control to prevent the chemical, in this case sanitizing chemicals, from entering the work areas.
Work Practices: Refer to how a chemical is used. Cleaning compounds are often used in stronger concentrations than necessary, and diluting the compounds will result in safer use. If workers are experiencing symptoms associated with over exposure to the chlorine in the water used throughout poultry and food processing plants, the chlorine level in the water should be reduced.
PPE: Respirators, gloves, eye goggles and protective clothing such as aprons are often necessary to prevent the chemicals from being breathed in, getting on or absorbed by the skin, or getting in the eye. However, PPE is considered to be the least effect method of preventing exposure since the protective gear doesn’t remove the hazard from the workplace. In most food plants, protective gear is a necessary form of protection, and must be provided by the employer. If PPE must be used, the employer must provide it in good condition, and must replace it when it becomes worn out or ineffective.
Quick-Drench Showers and Eye Wash Facilities: Required wherever workers are exposed to corrosive chemicals, which cause permanent damage to the skin, eyes or other tissue. These corrosive chemicals may include cleaning compounds, and electrolyte solutions from electric batteries in battery service and maintenance areas (used in forklifts and other industrial electrical trucks or equipment).