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Chemical Safety in The Workplace

Chemical safety in the workplace

Practicing safe chemical and toxic substance storage in the workplace is a formula for success. There are many, many work situations where chemicals and toxic substances are routinely relied upon to get work done. But just as important as the safe handling of these chemicals, is their safe storage.

If not stored properly, chemicals can cause a fire, explosion or personal injury. There are some real and common-sense safe storage procedures that should be followed to keep workers and the workplace free of chemical-related accidents.

According to estimates from the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA), there may be as many as 650,000 hazardous chemical products at work in the United States. Every day, these products are put to use manufacturing goods, cleaning and disinfecting work surfaces, producing other chemicals and performing a variety of other tasks.

So, while it’s true hazardous chemicals are part and parcel of our workday environment, they can also pose a danger to the health and safety of employees. That’s why it’s so important to ensure they’re trained in how to store chemicals and respond effectively in the event of a chemical spill.

Safe Storage

Storing chemicals properly reduces the risk for explosions, fires and other accidents. Perhaps the most important factor in chemical storage safety is keeping chemicals in their original containers.

Ensure proper signage warns users of the dangers and risks present with high-visibility signage. Place anywhere might be in close proximity to chemicals.

Next, check that each chemical container has a label. The label is a quick way of determining whether the material is a fire, health or reactivity hazard.

Chemicals should be placed so that incompatible substances are stored apart. You do not want to store water reactive chemicals next to a sink, oxidizers next to flammables, acids next to bases or poisons next to a desk.

Chemicals should never be stored or refrigerated with food. Chemical containers should not be stored on top of each other or on the floor where they could accidentally be knocked over. Do not casually leave chemical containers wherever you last use them or set them aside to make room for other work. Take the time to return containers to their proper storage place.

Maintenance is another important factor in safe chemical storage. Someone should be assigned to periodically inventory the chemicals not only to check for proper storage but to also check for damaged or corroded containers, signs of leakage or container pressure buildup. Make sure empty or damaged chemicals are disposed of properly.

Accidents caused by improper chemical storage can be prevented. Read labels, follow MSDS recommendations and use common sense. Instruct workers on safe chemical handling and enforce safe chemical storage procedures.

Because heat and sparks can cause chemical combustion, store chemicals away from direct sunlight, static electricity, flames and sparks. When storing heavy containers, ensure that the shelves are sturdy enough to support the containers without collapsing.

Make sure storage shelving material is acid resistant, secured to a permanent structure and strong enough to support the weight of the containers. The shelving should be fitted with a raised lip or tilted slightly backward so containers will not slip off the edge.

You may choose to color code the containers to correspond to the color on the shelf where it should be stored for quick access and proper storage return. Never store chemicals higher than eye level. If the chemical is accidentally knocked over, you could risk being showered with the chemical substance resulting in a burn or possible blindness. For added safety, make sure first aid kits and materials for cleaning spilled chemicals are readily accessible.

Keys for Safe Chemical Storage:

  1. Label hazardous chemicals with the identity of the hazardous chemical(s) and appropriate hazard warnings.
  2. Segregate all incompatible chemicals for proper storage of chemicals by hazard class.
  3. Chemicals should not be stored alphabetically unless compatible.
  4. Flammables should be stored in a flammable materials storage cabinet or storage room if the volume exceeds ten gallons.
  5. Keep cabinet doors closed when not in use.
  6. Corrosive chemicals should be stored below eye level.
  7. Avoid storing chemicals on the floor.
  8. Store acids in a dedicated acid cabinet. Nitric acid should be isolated from other acids.
  9. Store highly toxic or controlled materials in a locked, dedicated poison cabinet.
  10. Volatile or highly odorous chemicals should be stored in a ventilated cabinet.
  11. Chemical fume hoods shall not be used for storage.
  12. Chemicals should be dated upon receipt. This is especially important for peroxide-forming chemicals such as ethers, dioxane, isopropanol, and tetrahydrofuran. Solutions should be labeled and dated when prepared.
  13. First aid supplies, emergency phone numbers, eyewash and emergency shower equipment, fire extinguishers, spill cleanup supplies and personal protective equipment should be readily available, and personnel trained in their use.
  14. Chemicals stored in explosion-proof refrigerators or cold rooms shall be sealed and labeled with the name of the person who stored the material in addition to all other required hazard warnings.
  15. Only compressed gas cylinders that are in use shall be kept in work areas. All others shall be kept in a compressed gas cylinder storage area.
  16. Keep all chemicals away from heat and direct sunlight.

Safety Data Sheets

OSHA requires companies that manufacture, distribute and import chemicals to provide safety data sheets that communicate the hazards of chemical products.

Employers must keep a Safety Data Sheet for each chemical used in the workplace, as per 29 CFR 1910.1200, the hazard communication standard. These data sheets should be accessible to all employees.

A SDS must contain information about the product's chemical composition, hazards associated with use of the chemical, proper handling and storage of the chemical, how to respond if the chemical is involved in a fire and first-aid measures to be used if someone is exposed to the chemical.  

What is MSDS safety?

A Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) is a safety document required by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) that contains data about the physical properties of a specific hazardous substance. MSDS sheets are created to ensure a better understanding of a variety of hazard materials, including compressed gases, flammable and combustible liquids, oxidizing materials, poisonous or infectious material, corrosive material and dangerously reactive materials.

Hazard Communications

In addition to providing a SDS, employers must follow the other regulations outlined in the hazard communication standard.

OSHA requires employers that have hazardous chemicals in the workplace to develop and implement a hazard communication program. The purpose of such a program is to let employees know about the hazardous substances used in the workplace, the health effects of chemicals and appropriate ways to control chemical exposure.

Employers must also make sure that all chemical containers are labeled properly and train workers in the proper handling of hazardous substances.

What are the primary types of chemical hazards?

●     Flammable, materials which will burn or ignite.

●     Corrosive, materials which cause visible destruction and/or irreversible alterations at point of contact.

●     Reactive, materials which are liable to explode or react violently on contact with air, water or other chemicals.

●     Toxic, materials which cause harm if they enter the body, such as carcinogens, mutagens, and poisons.

●     Irritant, materials which cause harm by irritating the eyes and/or skin, and cause allergic reactions, drowsiness, lack of coordination, and/or organ damage.

●     Environmental Hazard, materials which are toxic and/or cause harm to the environment at large, particularly aquatic animals.

Personal Protective Equipment

Personal protective equipment refers to any clothing or accessories used to protect workers from hazards. Goggles protect the eyes from vapors, chemical splashes, mists and fumes. Face shields protect the entire face from chemical exposure. Clothing made from durable fabrics or coated with chemical-resistant film protects the torso and skin from chemical splashes and spills.

When handling chemicals, workers should wear protective gloves. These gloves should be selected based on their chemical resistance and other properties. Protective footwear and foot coverings help protect the feet and lower legs from chemical exposure. When selecting this type of footwear, be aware of other hazards in the workplace.

If workers use heavy objects and handle hazardous chemicals, steel-toed footwear made of chemical-resistant materials will help protect them against both types of hazards.

Spill Response

Even seasoned technicians can spill chemicals occasionally, so it's important to know how to properly handle spilled chemicals. Spill response plans should address spill prevention strategies, containment procedures, proper ventilation, when to evacuate, how to obtain medical care and reporting requirements. Regular drills will help to reinforce the details of response plans.

Having a spill kit readily available in each laboratory helps trained workers contain and control a spill quickly, further helping to minimize exposure.

Employees should also have access to first-aid kits and eyewash stations in case a chemical injury occurs. The first-aid kit should include the following supplies: gauze pads in varying sizes, adhesive bandages, triangular bandages, gauze roller bandages, scissors, moistened towelettes, tweezers, latex gloves, adhesive tape, elastic wraps, resuscitation equipment, a splint and at least one blanket.

An eyewash station contains liquid used to rinse the eyes in the event of a chemical splash. They should also know the location of all eyewash stations so they can get to one with restricted vision. All chemical spills should be cleaned immediately using the instructions on the product packaging or the safety data sheet for the product.

What are the 5 lab safety rules?

1. Wear proper lab clothing
2. Handle chemicals with care
3. Properly care for the equipment
4. Always locate emergency equipment
5. Keep food and drink out of the lab

Careful Housekeeping

Keeping floors clean and dry will help prevent slip and fall injuries -- the third-leading cause of worker injury and lost work time. Stocking absorbent mat pads and wipers in spill-prone locations helps employees clean up spills quickly, so the chance of a slip-and-fall incident is reduced, and exposure is minimized. Providing a proper receptacle for spent cleanup materials also helps to minimize exposure.

Cleaning work surfaces throughout the day keeps workspaces uncluttered, decreasing the likelihood of reactions and spills due to counter spaces being overcrowded. Likewise, storing excess chemicals on countertops should be discouraged so workers have adequate space to perform their duties properly.

Waste disposal procedures should also be established, with wastes being removed from labs to a central storage area on a regular basis. Workers should be taught not to pour liquids down drains or use hoods to get rid of volatile chemicals.


Using damaged glassware can be just as dangerous as using the wrong chemicals. It doesn't take much for a hairline crack to fail and create a spill. Using containment trays will help to control the mess but avoiding it in the first place helps save time and money and minimizes exposure.

Checking glassware and equipment prior to each use should be part of the standard operating procedure. Workers also should know how to properly handle, tag, or discard any article that is damaged, so it is not reused or put back into service until it has been repaired.

Further Resources

For more information on the safe storage and use of chemicals/toxic substances in the workplace, visit:

●     National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

●     Occupational Safety and Health Administration

●     World Health Organization “Chemical Safety”

●     OH&S “Eight Tips for Chemical Safety”

●     Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) “Chemical and Biosafety”

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