Chemical labels: What if no one reads them?

by on May 10, 2011 · 0 Comment POSTED IN: Workplace Safety Network

When it comes to working around hazardous chemicals, the more knowledge, the better. That’s why OSHA requires employers to provide detailed info about hazardous chemicals on containers and in areas where they are stored and used.

But realistically, employees will be reluctant to read MSDSs. Before sending workers into harm’s way, confirm they understand which chemicals are present and the safest ways to handle them.

“Steve Morello was just in here making serious allegations,” Safety Director Julie Newman said to Supervisor Dan Henderson. “Working around dangerous chemicals is no joke. Why weren’t our chemical safety procedures followed?”

“I can only tell you what I know,” Dan said. “Steve called my cell phone on my way to work and told me he saw a leaking container in the storage area.”

“And you told him to investigate the leak and clean it up,” prompted Julie.

Read up on it
“Right,” said Dan. “But Steve didn’t need my advice or permission. Everyone working around chemicals is trained to first check the MSDSs on every chemical container to find out what’s inside and how to deal with it safely.”

“I know that,” Julie said. “What I don’t understand is how the accident occurred.”

“Steve may not want to admit it, but he obviously didn’t read the data sheet before he opened up the container,” said Dan. “If he had, he would have used a respirator, not just a dust mask. The chemicals burned his lungs and he’ll need months to recover.”

“If Steve sues, he might say you should have reminded him of the safety procedures and told him what PPE to wear,” said Julie. “Otherwise, he was bound to get hurt.”

“I hope it doesn’t come to that,” said Dan. “But Steve ignored our safety procedures.”

Court decision
Steve sued the company for more than the workers’ comp payout. His lawyer argued that Dan’s instructions were so poor that Steve was certain to get hurt cleaning up the spill.

The court didn’t buy that. A federal judge agreed Dan’s instructions weren’t thorough, but that the supervisor wasn’t certain Steve would get injured. Dan merely wanted a hazard quickly cleaned up.

Bottom line: The judge said Steve will have to be satisfied with his workers’ comp award.

How to protect your people
It was an expensive win for the company – it faced both high legal bills and higher workers comp premiums as a result of this accident.

Still, it’s difficult to come down too hard on the supervisor. What supervisor, getting a call during a morning commute about a leak, wouldn’t be tempted to say, “Just take care of it – quickly”?

That’s why it’s better to head off that kind of call altogether.

Ensure workers know beforehand how to react to a chemical leak or spill. That means knowing:

  • which hazardous materials are in work areas
  • what PPE they should use, and
  • how to execute emergency-response procedures.

Remember: If it’s not an emergency situation, a worker can wait until you get there.

Cite: Crawford v. Clayton Dehl Inc.

photo credit: Mr Thinktank

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