Deaths & injuries attributable to HazCom: will a federal prescription save lives?

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This past spring, the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Employment, Safety and Training convened an historic hearing that could have profound implications for the future of hazard communications (HazCom) in the workplace. A standing-room-only assembly of industry representatives, professional lobbyists and others packed a hearing room in the Dirksen Senate Office Building to wit- ness this first step in a congressional exploration of what the federal government's role should be in upholding public health and safety in workplaces that use and store hazardous chemicals.

 Perhaps more to the point, the sub- committee convened at the call of its chair. Senator Mike Enzi (R-WY). to consider ways to prevent yet another injury or death in the U.S. relating to flaws in workplace HazCom plans.

 At issue is the apparent weakness in federal regulations that govern HazCom in the workplace. Implemented more than two decades ago, these regulations require facilities that use chemicals to develop and maintain a plan to communicate the potential hazards of those chemicals to employees. That is the good news.

 The bad news is that the current tool most widely used in today's workplaces to communicate these hazards actually contribute to the problem they were designed to solve. This tool is material safety data sheets (MSDS). Unfortunately, no standard format is in place for these documents, which are often maintained by facilities in unwieldy binders and are written in technical language that is difficult for the average worker to decipher. Consequently, this compromises workers' ability to respond quickly and effectively in the case of a chemical spill or other incident.

 Unfortunately, illnesses and deaths due to flaws in HazCom systems are well-documented. One horrific example took place at the Wyoming Medical Center in 2000, when two gallons of the chemical Xylene spilled in the lab. By the time an employee ee noticed the spill, the ventilation system had already sucked most of the vapors into the HVAC. It became suspended in the ceiling tile over the radiology department, and 12 hospital employees were sent to the emergency room.

 To make matters worse, the lab employee was frantically searching through the MSDS binder for the Xylene MSDS. Once she found it, she had difficulty locating the spill response section. After notifying the hospital's engineering department, she began to clean up die spill with solid waste rags, which have been known for spontaneous combustion, and placing them into a clear plastic bag for disposal. She did not know that Xylene has a flash point of 75°F.

 She then took the bag to the incinera- tor room and left it there, basically creating a live bomb. Twelve people were treated from this exposure. The lab employee was upset and concerned about the safety of the affected employees, patients and visitors, and hysterically kept stating that she could not find the necessary spill response information.

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