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Safety and Health Practitioner (SHP) is first for independent health and safety news.
June 13, 2012

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Handling chemicals – Protection personified

In a tale that brings home the importance of protecting workers from dangerous substances, Doug McIntosh shares his personal experiences about how a chemical exposure at work changed his life forever.

I had worked in the offshore industry for almost 19 years when my life – both working and personal – was turned completely on its head after a workplace chemical entered my body through a small cut on my hand.

Within months of the chemical exposure, I went from being a physically fit 37-year-old man, with a wife and three children, to one who been diagnosed with sub-dermal cancer and who faced a frighteningly stark choice – lose a limb, or lose my life.

The decision I made not only saved my life but set me on a new professional path, which now sees me working as a health and safety consultant with organisations around the world. My personal experience has opened my eyes to the need for employers and employees to understand the importance of protecting the hands and arms of workers, and I’m determined to raise awareness of the issue on a national scale.

To this end, I now work with a hand and arm-protection company, using my own experiences and standing as a health and safety professional to spread the word about the importance of education and training in the need for and use of appropriate personal protective equipment.

Your average offshore Joe

I was your typical offshore worker – hard-working, happy to turn my hand to most things, and blessed with a ‘get on and do it’ attitude, which was a necessity in what could be a tough and physically demanding working environment.

At the end of 1996, I was assigned to one of the offshore support vessels in the North Sea oil fields. As part of my duties – which were varied and included a range of maintenance tasks – I was asked to undertake some specialist welding work on a piece of equipment, which was going to be used in conjunction with gas management systems for commercial diving. The normal practice after completing any maintenance, including welding work, was to clean and degrease the welded pieces with a chemical solution in a degreasing bath to ensure the equipment was cleaned to an oxygen-safe standard.

The degreasing bath contained ‘trike’ (trichloroethylene) solution and would not only clean equipment but, if your hands were exposed to the chemical, it would evaporate and leave your hands free from any dirt or grease.

Back then, trike was not considered a hazardous chemical. I didn’t receive any training or advice about safe handling, the importance of proper hand and arm protection, COSHH, or PPE, and I had not been made aware of the dangers of chemical exposure. I simply didn’t understand the potential damage that I was doing to my hands and skin and was certainly not aware of issues such as chemical permeation. 

I remember at the time that I had a small open cut on one of the fingers of my hand, which was caused by sharpening the tungsten tips I was using for the welding process; the cut was really nothing more than a paper cut.

Spotting the symptoms

About two months later I had to attend a diver paramedic course in Plymouth. I had noticed that the cut on the end of my finger was just not healing, and I’d also found a lump at the base of the same finger. 

I went to the doctors to get it checked out, thinking it was nothing particularly serious. I went back again a few weeks later and was advised that I should have the lump removed, so I went into hospital to have the operation.

I was put under local anaesthetic and I can recall the surgeon who performed the operation pulling out the underlying tissue and then seeking out his senior surgeon to come in and look at the lump. They then put a full ring block on my arm to carry out a more in-depth operation, opening up the skin on the front and the back of the hand to remove the whole lump. After they had finished I remember having this huge bandage and not knowing how serious the operation had been.

I went back a few weeks later to get my dressing changed and realised my hand had been opened from the front, right around to the back, with lots of stitches in place. The surgeon advised me that I was being sent for a biopsy. I was then advised that there would be a meeting between myself and medical staff at Aberdeen Royal Infirmary Oncology Department. I didn’t even know what an oncology unit dealt with until I arrived at the clinic.

I went along to see the oncology specialists the following morning and, within an hour, I had received an MRI scan and CT scan. I was later given the news that I had a sub-dermal tumour, the cause of which had been the trike entering the bloodstream. I had two options – leave it, with the potential that the cancer could spread, resulting in a high risk of death, or have my arm amputated.

The hardest thing of all was having to go home and tell my wife and children the news I had received. It was something that was going to change all of our lives, which was a frightening prospect. At the heart of this was the thought that it was all completely avoidable.

It was not long before the day arrived when I had to go into hospital for my operation. Sitting there pre-op, with two fully-functioning arms, knowing that by the time I came out of anaesthetic I would have lost one of them, was, without doubt, the strangest feeling I had ever experienced. 

I lost my arm from just below the elbow, and it was estimated that I would need about a year of rehabilitation before I would fully recover from the operation.

Road to recovery

The rehabilitation was extremely hard and something you would just never contemplate unless you are in that situation.

Simple, everyday tasks like tying a shoelace, spreading butter on a slice of toast, or taking the top off a boiled egg become extremely difficult. And, as the months and years went by, there was an almost constant and nagging sense of frustration and anger that by simply wearing the right protective gloves in the first place, my life would never have changed in the way that it did.

Whenever I worked with chemicals during my time offshore, I honestly believed that the tasks I carried out were risk-free. Moreover, the fact that there was no obvious sign of skin damage reinforced the feeling that what we were doing was not causing any harm to us. Had there been some physical signs of damage, I have little doubt that we would have been very keen to protect our hands.

My working life, as I had known it over the previous 19 years, was over and I had to think long and hard about what I could do next. After my release from hospital, I immediately began training to become a safety officer. I now work on contracts around the world – from offshore work to construction environments, such as the World and Palm Islands in Dubai – advising and managing health and safety for a range of organisations.

There is no doubt that the experiences I have gone through have enabled me to become a more effective health and safety manager. Ultimately, I personify the message about the need for, and importance of, effective PPE, and the dangers of not adopting proper safety procedures.

Many of us will have been at a company when someone has scoffed at health and safety regulation and PPE provision but, ultimately, these rules are there to protect people and the dangers of ignoring them could, quite literally, be life-changing – both for the individuals concerned and their families.

I am now in my 50s and have been able to change my life in a positive way, as a result of my own experiences of chemical exposure. However, it’s not a journey I would wish on anyone and, if my situation can stop one person taking hand and arm protection lightly and reinforce the vital role it can play in workplace safety, then my experience will not have been in vain.

Raising awareness

Chemical protection is an issue that affects thousands of businesses and hundreds of thousands of workers across the country – from hairdressers and cleaning contractors, to those working at food-processing companies, manufacturing plants and construction sites.

In all these sectors, things have certainly improved since 1996. For one thing, trike has been outlawed and awareness of the need for workplace safety has improved greatly – both among employers and employees. Nevertheless, you only have to look at the statistics to see that hand and arm injuries are still a major issue that businesses have to deal with, and there is a great deal more that can be done to reinforce the message about appropriate hand and arm protection.

When I first met representatives from Marigold Industrial to discuss my own awareness-raising plans, I was struck by the degree of support and knowledge that the industry can offer health and safety managers to help them reinforce the value of PPE among their workforce. Some really useful educational tools are available – for example, chemical permeation charts, workplace posters and various on-site support.

Further improvement in this area will surely come from providing the right type and style of protection and continuing to drive home the message that PPE is there to help, not hinder. But it goes deeper than this – it is about having an approach to hand and arm protection throughout an organisation that is built on the ethos of prevention being better than cure. As I found out to my cost, you don’t necessarily have the opportunity to cure a problem easily once it has arisen.

My experience illustrates a degree of naivety in thinking that just because a chemical doesn’t create an immediate problem, it isn’t dangerous. Employers and employees involved in chemicals handling must take note – it may just be a matter of time before a serious problem develops. 

Doug McIntosh is a project safety advisor and diving safety advisor.

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12 years ago

A very good article Doug. I for one will use this for a toolbox talk and for educational material in chemical awareness. Although I don’t work offshore, many of the issues are still relevant in our operations.
I used to work in paint manufacturing, many years ago, I can remember mopping floors with trike & nobody thought anything of it. Why? It removed everything from the floor & flashed off quickly – I shudder when i think, we were blissfully unaware of the hazard we were exposed to then!

12 years ago

Ditto to the comment by Alex, your article was nice and down to earth and again I will use it in training sessions.