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Safety and Health Practitioner (SHP) is first for independent health and safety news.
June 29, 2008

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Handling hazardous substances- How to win hands down

Every year, millions of tonnes of industrial chemicals help keep British businesses across almost every industry sector running smoothly, but their widespread use and application also makes them one of the workplace’s greatest hazards. In terms of how to handle them safely, John Thorne provides a quick reminder for practitioners of how to select the right gloves.

While they are essential for business, chemicals also present significant occupational health hazards, and managing them is one of the biggest challenges for health and safety professionals. With up to 10,000 commercial chemicals classified as being hazardous, those with responsibility for worker safety are often understandably hard-pressed to ensure staff working with chemicals are suitably protected.

Where working with any harmful substances is concerned, the ideal scenario is to remove any contact between worker and chemical, but the reality is that, in many circumstances, this is neither practical nor possible. The challenge therefore is to ensure the right type and level of protection is provided. To do so, a number of key issues needs to be addressed.

For those handling chemicals, the hands are generally the part of the body most exposed to risk. Whether people are working with strong substances, such as cutting fluids, or subtler ones, like cleaning detergents diluted in water, chemicals are highly adept at breaking down the skin’s natural defences.

The damage occurs over a period of time, as people perceive that the substance they are working with poses little or no real threat, is not particularly hazardous, or doesn’t obviously have an immediate effect. Clearly, no one would ever knowingly dip their hands into a vat of chemicals, yet millions of people every day work with water, cleaning fluids, oils, greases and fats – all of which are chemicals that strip the skin of its natural protective oils. But because such work is ‘part and parcel’ of the job, and the substances are perceived as low-risk, inadequate – or no – protective measures are taken.

The right information

The first step for those with responsibility for health and safety is to understand the chemicals that staff are working with, and how they are working with them. Chemical safety data sheets are an essential tool in identifying chemical make-up and hazard levels to the unprotected worker.1 As well as a vital source of information, they must be held by the employer under COSHH.2

Once the make-up of a chemical has been understood, the health and safety manager must consider the work being undertaken by staff, and the type of contact they have with the chemical with which they are working before being able to determine which glove material will provide the right levels of protection for the workers’ hands.

Marigold Industrial’s new Chemical Permeation Chart3 highlights the performance of common glove materials, such as nitrile, rubber, PVC and neoprene, against permeation by 100 of the most commonly-used industrial chemicals. It explains how long each type of glove can be safely used with a particular chemical, and which gloves provide the highest level of protection against which chemical. It is essential that duty-holders obtain accurate data like this from their glove suppliers as, without it, the glove selection process is potentially and seriously flawed.

Permeation is the process by which a chemical can pass through a protective barrier, i.e. a glove, without going through visible openings. Molecules of a specific chemical enter the glove material and effectively wriggle through the compound – with the glove material often appearing unchanged to the human eye, despite the fact its protection has been compromised. The objective therefore is to provide a glove that is robust enough to provide a barrier that stands firm against the threat of permeation – even when people are working with that chemical for several hours.

For example, the chemical permeation chart adopts a number rating from 0 to 6 to highlight specific glove permeation performance. A glove with a score of 6 provides permeation protection for more than eight hours, while a glove with a score of 0 provides protection for fewer than 10 minutes, and is therefore inappropriate for use with particular chemicals.

Comfort is king

But it’s not all about performance and protection. You could have a glove that provides extremely high protection against chemical X but if it is uncomfortable, or bulky, and does not allow the wearer to do their job properly, they will be disinclined to wear it, and thus all its protective features are completely useless. So, as part of the risk assessment and glove selection processes, the following issues must also be considered:

• grip;

• comfort and dexterity;

• glove length; and

• ease of putting on and taking off.


Chemicals are a major workplace hazard not only because of their inherent potential to harm health but also due to their many applications and widespread use. Where contact between workers and chemicals is unavoidable, extreme care and vigilance are absolutely essential, and the choice of suitable protective measures is crucial.

Common industrial chemicals

• Engineering – metalworking fluids, neat oils;

• Automotive manufacture and aftercare – new and used engine oils, paint solvents, degreasers, battery acid and adhesives;

• Construction – cement, epoxy resins;

• Food – synthetic flavourings, cleaning agents;

• Printing – processing chemicals, inks, plate-cleaning;

• Agriculture – pesticides, silage additives, degreasers;

• Facilities management – bleaches, floor cleaning chemicals, detergents;

• Hairdressing – bleaches, dyes, detergents.


1 Suppliers of chemicals that are classified as dangerous under the Chemicals (Hazard Information and Packaging for Supply) Regulations 2002 (known as CHIP 3) must provide end-users with information about the hazards that the chemical presents. Some of this will be provided on labels, but more detailed hazard information must be supplied on a safety data sheet – for more information on CHIP visit the HSE website’s CHIP page

2 Chemical risk assessments, as required under the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations 2002, can be aided by the information contained in safety data sheets – for more information visit the HSE website’s COSHH page

3 For a copy of the Chemical Permeation Chart contact Marigold Industrial on 0845 075 3355 (LoCall); email; or visit the company’s website.


Approaches to managing the risks associated Musculoskeletal disorders

In this episode of the Safety & Health Podcast, we hear from Matt Birtles, Principal Ergonomics Consultant at HSE’s Science and Research Centre, about the different approaches to managing the risks associated with Musculoskeletal disorders.

Matt, an ergonomics and human factors expert, shares his thoughts on why MSDs are important, the various prevalent rates across the UK, what you can do within your own organisation and the Risk Management process surrounding MSD’s.

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