In 2007 the Center for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that 53,445 fatal illnesses could be attributed to workplace exposures.

“The saddest part is that each death is preventable,” says John A. Dony, the director of the Campbell Institute and also of Environmental, Health, Safety & Sustainability at the National Safety Council. “Safety should never be considered a cost of doing business.”

At-risk workers

But for workers who deal with potentially harmful chemicals during the work day, staying safe isn't always easy. “Most workers, and most small and medium-sized employers, don't really understand the potential dangers they work with,” explains Dr. David Michaels, assistant secretary of labor for Occupational Safety and Health (OSHA). “That's why we have requirements that manufacturers and suppliers of chemicals provide workers and employers with information they can use to protect themselves.”

While toxic levels of exposure to chemicals can result in a long list of symptoms, ranging from dizziness to cardiovascular failure, blindness or even death, Michaels points out that exposure to airborne chemicals is one of the hardest to control.

“We're very concerned about respiratory exposure,” he says. “We have rules about that, but airborne exposure is one of the major risks of exposure.”

Creating safer conditions

Employers may find that changing chemicals might be the most effective way to reduce the risk to employees. "We urge employers to look for safer alternatives to some of the toxic chemicals they use,” adds Michaels. “If you can move to a safer chemical, you can allow more of it into the air.

“If employers can choose safer chemicals, they will save money. In many cases, they'll have fewer issues dealing with environmental concerns, and they'll also save their workers.”

Michaels also says employers shouldn't assume that meeting OSHA standards guarantees worker safety. “When we talk to employers about chemical hazards, we discourage them from thinking that if they’re below OSHA limits, they're safe,” he says.

“The process with which we set regulations is broken. It's extremely difficult for us to update our standards, and our standards are extremely out of date. What we need is a new process for the thousands of chemicals out there. Most chemicals used in the workplace have no standards.” 

While changing the chemicals used is important, changing the workplace itself is critical, too. “Organizations need more than strong systems; they need strong safety cultures,” sums Dony. “When management walks the talk and shows visible, genuine care, it is much easier for workers to notice and take safety communications seriously.”