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The Invisible Enemy

In the blockbuster, Outbreak, Dustin Hoffman and Kevin Spacey race against time to save mankind from an airborne virus so lethal, it kills its victims within three days. 

The movie grossed $13 million on its opening weekend. But what makes it so compelling? 

Sure, the virus is deadly. But if you think about it, the true horror lies in the fact it’s completely invisible, undetectable until it’s already too late. 

It’s the ultimate enemy.  

Are you fighting an invisible enemy? 

When we think about workplace hazards, we often think of the obvious: sharp blades, pointed edges, scalding metal and dangerous machinery. But some of the most treacherous workplace threats, similar to an airborne disease, can be largely invisible.

Chemical substances and mixtures, when handled incorrectly, are easily inhaled, ingested or touched. The latter will typically result in burns to the skin. The others though, are perhaps more worrying - accidentally ingesting chemicals over time can lead to systemic toxicity, triggering cancer and life long respiratory problems, and because of the long latency periods for some diseases, the damage might only surface years later. 

How common are chemical injuries?

Many Australian companies use substances like acids, solvents, petrochemicals, glues, heavy metals and pesticides in their workplaces and the most common form of injury continues to be burns with workers’ eyes, respiratory systems, hands and forearms tending to bear the brunt.
Recent research from WorkSafe WA looked at the incidence of lost time injuries and disease caused by chemicals. Between 2011 and 2012 occurrences increased by 10.8 percent - 64 percent of which were attributable to ‘single contact with a chemical substance’. 
The incidence rates were particularly high in the construction industry, up 116 percent compared to previous figures.

Clearly, it’s not the time to get complacent. 

Prevention is critical

Over the next five years, under the new national Work Health and Safety regulations, Australia is adopting a new system for classifying and labeling chemicals, known as the GHS.

Accurate hazard labeling for chemicals is essential but workers must then select the right equipment to deal with them. Some need gloves that protect them from occasional splashes; others need high performance materials that allow them to immerse their hands in substances. 

Selecting the right protection

There are a number of different materials that offer protection against chemicals. Nitrile, polyvinyl chloride (PVC), neoprene, and polyvinyl alcohol (PVA), are some of them. But along with selecting the right materials, workers also need to consider two important things: permeation and degradation.

When a balloon has been inflated for several hours, the air gradually starts to escape through its membrane even though there are no holes in the balloon. This is gas permeation. And the same thing can happen with liquids.  

Chemicals can also degrade the protective properties of gloves both immediately and over time, which, in turn, can affect the likelihood of permeation, although the two don’t always correlate. 

If you’re selecting gloves for handling chemicals, ask your supplier about these performance aspects. And always test your protective equipment on the job to determine its capacity to shield workers from the specific hazards they face.