Accidental Occupational Poisoning Is a Serious (But Preventable) Concern: Here's What You Need to Know About Chemical Hazards on the Job
Numerous jobs across a broad range of industries encounter hazardous materials on a routine basis—which is why appropriate chemical hazard prevention and protective clothing is critical for the health and safety of our nation's workforce.
Occupational poisonings are completely avoidable with the proper measures in place. In this article, we discuss common types of occupational poisonings, the materials and chemicals typically involved, and what safety protocols and personal protective equipment (PPE) can help prevent accidental occupational poisonings.
In the News: Recent Occupational Poisoning Examples
The National Capital Poison Center defines poison as "any substance that can cause harm to the body," whereas poisoning, according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), refers to the "systemic effects of toxic materials."
Occupational poisoning examples in the media today range from pesticide exposures, which are compiled state-by-state by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), to the recent Ohio train derailment—a human and environmental catastrophe that underscores the importance of proper work safety protocols, workforce training, and PPE.
Perhaps the most infamous example of poisoning today is the ongoing opioid epidemic. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there were 107,622 drug overdose deaths in the United States during 2021, more than half of which were attributed to synthetic opioids like fentanyl. (This figure is nearly 15% more than the number of drug overdose deaths reported in 2020; data for 2022 is yet to be released.)
While drug overdoses—both intentional and unintentional—can be considered a separate entity from occupational poisonings, it's important to consider that for at least some workers there is an overlap.
For example, first responders such as law enforcement officers and emergency medical service (EMS) providers, are routinely exposed to opioids in the field as they respond to emergency calls related to drug overdoses.
And while debate exists in the scientific community about the true risks of workplace opioid exposure among first responders, those in the industry are still encouraged to wear appropriate PPE, including nitrile gloves and respiratory protection if powdered drugs are suspected or visible.
It's clear that occupational poisoning is a preventable yet realistic concern. In 2020, the National Capital Poison Center found that more than three-quarters of poison exposures reported to U.S. poison centers were classified as unintentional, and of these, about 1.2 percent were due to occupational exposure.
Jobs and Industries with the Highest Risk of Accidental Occupational Poisoning
In addition to first responders, other jobs and industries with the highest risk of accidental occupational poisoning include:
- Health professionals, including nurses, physicians, laboratory, and pharmacy personnel
- Manual laborers, including construction, farming, and agricultural workers
- Transportation-related occupations, including truckers and automotive technicians
- Service industry, such as janitorial and environmental services staff
One 2020 paper published in Preventive Medicine found that individuals working within the service, manual labor, and transportation industries have up to a three times greater risk of death compared to individuals working in administrative and managerial positions.
Types of Materials That Cause Poisonings and Methods of Exposure
The BLS offers several examples of substances that may lead to poisoning incidents on the job. These include:
- Heavy metals, such as Copper, Lead, Gold, Mercury, Cadmium, and Arsenic. Potentially seen in industries such as: battery manufacturing, stainless steel manufacturing, electroplating, as well as ore processing for copper, gold, and lead
- Gases, vapors, and particulate matter such as Hydrogen sulfide, Vinyl chloride, Nitrogen gas, and Carbon monoxide. Potentially seen in industries such as: mining, construction, sand blasting, alloy manufacturing, welding, textile manufacturing, ceramics manufacturing, tanneries, coal mining, ship building, and—in reference to the 2023 Ohio train derailment—hazmat clean-up
- Organic solvents, such as benzol, n-Hexane, Benzene, Toluene, Dichloromethane, Methanol, Isopropanol, Formaldehyde, and carbon tetrachloride. Potentially seen in industries such as: metal cleaning/degreasing, pharmaceutical manufacturing, paint/varnish/lacquer production, dry cleaning, and adhesive or surface coating applications
- Pesticides including fungicides, herbicides, insecticides, parathion and lead arsenate. Potentially seen in industries including: pesticide manufacturing, mixing, and loading, as well as agriculture/farming, greenhouse and field work
Additional chemicals that can lead to poisoning following acute or chronic exposure include formaldehyde, plastics, and resins.
Examples of Occupational Poisoning Incidents
Accidental occupational poisoning can occur in three main ways or routes of exposure:
- Inhalation (e.g., breathing in a poisonous substance present in the air while not wearing appropriate respiratory protection such as a fit-tested respirator)
- Ingestion (e.g., consuming a food or beverage contaminated with a poisonous substance—a potential concern among laboratory workers who eat or drink within the lab or without first performing proper hand hygiene)
- Contact with the skin or eyes (e.g., rubbing one's eyes with hands contaminated with a poisonous substance)
The specific signs and symptoms that can develop because of unintentional occupational poisoning vary considerably and depend on factors like dose, duration, and type of exposure. Ailments include headaches, nausea, breathing problems, burns, rashes, vision loss, organ damage, and death in severe cases (chronic exposure may also lead to health issues like fertility problems, birth defects, and cancer).
Current Regulations Related to Occupational Poisoning and Chemical Hazard Prevention
A variety of employer, industry, local, and national regulations are in place to help prevent workplace poisoning and protect the American population at large. For example, the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) created the Hazard Communication Standard (HCS) as a way to "ensure that information about chemical and toxic substance hazards in the workplace and associated protective measures is disseminated to workers." The HCS includes stipulations such as:
- Ensuring all hazardous materials come with Safety Data Sheets (SDS) that are readily accessible during all shifts.
- Ensuring all hazardous materials are properly labeled.
- Ensuring all personnel receive appropriate information and training regarding hazardous materials they may be exposed to during their typical work duties.
Employers are encouraged to refer to OSHA guidelines and other resources for more industry-specific guidance.
Best Practices for Occupational Poisoning Prevention
The third week of every March is National Poison Prevention Week (NPPW). National Poison Prevention Week was established by Congress in 1961 in an effort to raise awareness of poison prevention and safety.
Employers across all industries are encouraged to recognize National Poison Prevention Week by doing an inventory of their own poisoning prevention practices. These practices should include:
- Having readiness plans and materials available, including spill kits, spill action plans, and eye-wash stations
- Optimizing the workplace environment, such as providing proper ventilation; establishing proper storage, transportation and handling of poisonous substances; enclosing hazardous operations to specific areas; and restricting entry into hazardous areas to authorized and properly trained/equipped workers only
- Ensuring all workers have access to (and are trained in the donning and doffing of) appropriate PPE, including gloves, protective clothing (e.g., gowns, shoe covers, coveralls), respirators, goggles, and face masks
A poison is any substance or chemical that can cause harm to the body when ingested, inhaled, or contacted by the skin or eyes. While unintentional poisonings often occur within the home and community, they can also occur on the job.
Industries with a higher risk of accidental poisoning events include service, manual, transportation, agricultural, health/medical, and first responder industries. Chemicals that are often involved in occupational exposure include pesticides, heavy metals, organic solvents, and gases like carbon monoxide.
While occupational poisonings can cause serious harm or even death, they are preventable! It is each employer's responsibility to ensure their workforce is adequately equipped to prevent accidental poisonings and to take immediate, appropriate action if a poisoning event occurs.
Best practices to prevent occupational poisoning include establishing readiness plans and materials, improving workplace safety with strategies like ventilation and restricted access, and training workers in the proper use and disposal of PPE and hazardous substances handling. OSHA and other agencies can also offer employers additional regulations and guidelines.