When the average person thinks about hazardous wastes, their minds probably conjure an image of a remediation worker in a moonsuit using a sophisticated robot to move vials of mysterious compounds. After all, that’s the way TV and movies tend to portray those materials.
In reality, hazardous wastes are all around us, especially in workplaces. Essentially, a hazardous waste material is something that can threaten either our health or the environment, and that incorporates a lot of the chemicals and substances workers use every day.
There are three basic keys to working safely around those hazardous wastes. First is education, so people understand which wastes are hazardous and exactly which hazards they present. Second, there’s proper training, so workers know how to behave when they encounter waste materials. The third piece is communication, so everyone is fully aware of the hazards that are around them.
Understanding hazardous wastes
The U.S. government broadly divides hazardous wastes into two categories. Listed hazardous wastes, as the name implies, are specific types of waste that have been identified (listed) by regulatory authorities. Characteristic wastes are those that have one or more of four hazardous properties: flammability, reactivity, corrosivity, and toxicity.
One characteristic all hazardous wastes share is that we’re not allowed to get rid of them in the same way we deal with non-hazardous wastes. When we throw something into the garbage, it finds its way into a trash truck before being dumped into a landfill or burned in an incinerator. But because of their inherent danger, hazardous wastes have to be disposed of in special ways. For example, some wastes are chemically treated to break them down into nonhazardous materials. Others may be encapsulated in materials such as clay and stored in special landfills.
In the workplace, there are two areas of concern with hazardous waste — their effect on people who come in contact with them, and the damage they can inflict on other materials. In this article, we’ll focus on the human side.
The effects of exposure to hazardous waste vary based on the type of substance involved and the actual amount of exposure. Some effects are immediate (such as having your hand burned by a highly corrosive liquid), while others are cumulative or delayed over time (mercury accumulating in your body tissue over the years).
Workers can be exposed to hazardous wastes in four ways. They can inhale wastes while breathing, which can include both gaseous wastes and small particulate materials such as asbestos fibers. They can ingest wastes by inadvertently eating or drinking items that have been tainted by the waste materials. Workers can absorb chemicals through the skin or their eyes, or they can have the wastes “injected” by having the materials enter open wounds or skin punctures.
Because of the inherent dangers, all workers who may come in contact with hazardous wastes must receive training at the beginning of their employment, along with regular training to refresh their knowledge.
The specific type and amount of training depends largely on the amount of potential exposure to the waste, and the nature of a worker’s involvement. For example, someone who is responsible for gathering and moving hazardous waste within a facility will need more stringent training than someone who simply works near it. Details for training should be spelled out in the workplace’s safety plan.
A key element of training is ensuring that the workers understand the personal protective equipment (PPE) that they’ll need when handling or near hazardous wastes. In addition to knowing how use the PPE properly, they should receive instruction in how to inspect and maintain it. If a respirator is part of their required PPE, they need to be made aware of any limitations in the protection it offers, and in how to verify that they have the proper seal. It’s also important to ensure that they are made aware of any limits the respirator will have on their ability to see or handle tasks.
Training should also emphasize the importance of never working alone in the presence of hazardous materials. It’s important to ensure that other workers are around in case an emergency situation develops, and to verify that PPE is being used correctly.
Keeping them informed
When it comes to working around or with hazardous wastes, knowledge is critical. In addition to training, workers should receive regular briefings about safe practices for the tasks they will be expected to handle and the materials with which they may come in contact. They should also know where they can find permits, Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS), and other documents related to the materials they may encounter. The site’s hazard communication program should address these issues and ensure that all hazardous materials carry the proper warning labels.
Limiting the danger
Whenever possible, steps should be taken to limit the potential exposure to hazardous wastes. This can include engineering equipment to provide additional protection, such as installing exhaust systems and machine guards. It can also be handled through administrative controls that set time and/or physical limits on the amount of exposure, or that spell out procedures that should be followed.
Finally, a key part of any safety plan related to hazardous materials is a clearly defined emergency response plan that explains exactly what steps should be taken in an emergency situation. The plan should be comprehensive, detailing every potential type of emergency and the proper actions for each, and workers should review it regularly so that they will follow it instinctively.