Unfortunately, it is indeed a fact that sooner or later life will kill you. Every day we routinely face risks, including many dangers on the job site. Some risks are obvious, falling objects, falls from heights, injury from moving scenery & crates. Care and safe working habits can help with these.
However, we also face less obvious health dangers at work from chemicals and materials. Paints contain toxic pigments. Chemicals may blister skin or soak through to the bloodstream. Solvents can poison organs and the nervous system. Sprays have toxic gases. Dusts and fumes may be both toxic and carcinogenic.
The Federal government has actually done something to help protect workers, and that is OSHA.
OSHA requires that the employer provide workers with information on health hazards, AND provide the means to stay healthy. When it comes to chemicals, the information we need is provided, originally through Material Safety Data Sheets, or MSDS, and currently through SDS or Safety Data Sheets, so we can know what to do to protect ourselves. SDS tell us the recognized harzards of the chemicals we work with, the required procedures and Personal Protective Equipment, or PPEs (eye protection, masks, gloves, spray booths for spray paint, dyes and chemicals), which are supposed to be provided by our employers for our protection.
To know what precautions to take, you must know what you're up against. Chemical health hazards break down into categories:
Acute, chronic, Sensitization and Carcinogenic.
Let us consider a common and familiar chemical to which many of us have been exposed: Grain Alcohol. This product is of course the "active ingredient" in alcoholic beverages, but it is also a common industrial solvent. Let us look at it as a chemical:
Acute effects of grain alcohol:
Low levels of exposure may not be felt at all, but even low levels will usually cause a slight narcosis. You feel a little tipsy. Higher levels of exposure can cause more severe effects, headache, nausea, loss of coordination, and finally unconsciousness and even death.
All this from a fairly benign solvent. Other solvents, even closely related ones like wood alcohol, isopropyl alcohol, and glycol, will cause similar but FAR MORE toxic effects for a given amount. Many, including grain alcohol, can be absorbed right through the skin. They may target different organs. All attack the brain, liver and kidneys, but wood alcohol quickly targets and destroys the optic nerve, making you go blind, and glycol destroy the liver almost immediately, and a small amount can be deadly.
So, sometimes acute effects go away, sometimes they cause long term damage, and sometimes they can kill.
Chronic effect of grain alcohol: Long term exposure includes cirosos or hardening of the liver, and brain damage causing dementia.
A single binge with alcohol may make you sick for a night, but leave no permanent damage.
Chronic drinking can cause organ damage and will eventually kill you.
Sensitizing agents: will cause various allergic reactions which may be quite individual; may take the form of dermatitis (skin rashes, hives, and blisters), respiratory reactions (similar to hay fever), and even anaphalactic shock, a severe reaction which can close off the airways, and even cause death. Sensitizing agents can exhibit chronic effects; they may not show up until there have been several exposures, and then will show increasingly severe reactions on subsequent exposures. Also, once you have been sensitized to one chemical, you will likely become more easily sensitized to others as well, and you MAY ultimately become sensitive to almost everything!
Carcinogens are a special class because they cause cancer cells to develop, which are a mutation of normal cells. There is NO SAFE LEVEL of exposure to carcinogens. One molecule in just the right place and time can cause a cancer. Generally speaking, the greater the exposure the more likely that cancer will develop. But there is no way to tell either way.
A single dose of a carcinogen may kill, or a lifetime exposure may do nothing.
There are many ways chemicals can get into you. Some chemicals may be absorbed through the skin and the eyes. Many that produce fumes and vapors may be breathed in and enter the bloodstream through the lungs. They may also be ingested, swallowed and absorbed through the digestive system. This will not only occur if you eat the product, but fumes, dusts and vapors can also fall onto or be absorbed by food and beverages in or near the work area, and the subsequently be eaten or drunk. This is why it is not a good idea to store or consume food and beverages in or near the immediate work area.
How do you protect yourself? Check the SDS.
SDS are a form OSHA requires manufacturers to fill out. Like many government forms, it requires a lot of information which may or may not be useful, and does take practice to read. But once you learn how, they do make sense.
Uses specific terms and definitions defined by OSHA
Information is presented in a specific order and format.
However, there are actually two formats, OSHA and ANSI. The OSHA form is the original government form. Can be a little intimidating and hard to find what you need to know. ANSI is a newer form designed by the American National Standards Institute. It is accepted by OSHA as well and is much more user friendly.
The MSDS forms are divided into sections to make organize the information. The two forms do not match, but all the information is there if you look in the right section.
Name of the Product, Trade name, chemical family
Manufacturer's address and phone numbers
Hazardous ingredients, esp. those for which standards have been set. May include exposure level guidelines.
Proprietary listings: beware
By using this the manufacturer doesn't HAVE to tell you what is in the product. It is meant to protect trade secrets from the competition, but leaves workers uninformed about how to protect themselves.
Exposure limits are how much exposure an average healthy adult (male) can be expected to be exposed to without showing adverse effects. They are NOT "safe" levels. There are no "safe" levels, only tolerable levels, which means they probably won't make you very sick!
Permitted exposure levels ASSUME you are "average", healthy, are not a small person, haven't been exposed to too many other chemicals, not pregnant or likely to be anytime soon, don't have a compromised immune system, etc. In other words, "permitted" levels may still be too much for YOU!
Permitted exposure levels are expressed in several ways:
PEL: Permitted Exposure Level
Developed by OSHA based on TVL´s and other industry standards
Enforced by OSHA
TVL´s are NOT
WARNING: Normal Conditions ONLY!
The recommendations for exposures and protection is based on "normal working conditions". That means 8 hrs/ day, 5 days/ week, with a two-day weekend to detoxify. In theatre, we NEVER have normal working conditions! We rarely work a normal "40 hour week", instead we sometimes work more than 8 hours in a day and more that 40 hours in a week or more than 5 days in a row. We may also work a shorter work period with the chemicals in question. The information can be taken as a guide for how bad the stuff might be for us, but will not exactly apply to our situations.
|OSHA Format||ANSI Format|
Section 1: Product and Manufacturer
Section 2: Ingredients and Exposures
Section 1. Chemical product and company identification Links the MSDS to the material. Identifies the supplier of the MSDS. Identifies a source for more information.
Section 2. Composition/information on ingredients
|Section 3: Physical/Chemical Characteristics
Boiling, melting, freezing points
Section 4: Fire and Explosion data
Flash point: lowest ignition temp in presence if ignition source
Section 5: Reactivity Data
Section 6: Hazardous Health DataHow it gets in the body
What damage it does there.
Section 7: Safe handling and Use
Section 8: Control measures
Section 9: Special Precautions
Section 3. Hazards identification, inc. emergency overview (osha 6)
Section 4. First aid measures (osha 6 & 9)
Section 5. Fire fighting measures (osha 4)
Basic fire fighting guidance, including appropriate extinguishing media.
Section 6. Accidental release measures (osha 7)
Section 7. Handling and storage (osha 7)
Section 8. Exposure controls/personal protection (osha 8)
Section 9. Physical and chemical properties (osha 3)
Section 10. Stability and reactivity (osha 5)
Section 11. Toxicological information (osha 6)
Section 12. Ecological information (osha 7)
Section 13. Disposal considerations (osha 9)
Section 14. Transport information (osha 9)
Section 15. Regulatory information (osha 9)
Section 16. Other information (osha 9)