Skip to main content

Chemical Safety in the Workplace

April 14, 2024

Millions of people across the United States live or work near potentially hazardous chemicals. A recent Ohio train accident in February 2023 brought the dangers to light. Transported chemicals on the derailed train seeped into the ground and filled the air, sickening local residents and generating national headlines. 

According to the Coalition to Prevent Chemical Disasters, a chemical-related incident occurs once every two days on average in the United States, and many serious incidents are never even reported. An Online Master of Science in Public Health in Industrial Hygiene degree program provides the skills and knowledge to promote chemical safety in the workplace and keep people safe.  

What Is Chemical Safety in the Workplace? 

Chemical safety in the workplace involves using occupational chemical substances in ways that keep people and the environment safe. It can also be defined as a series of laws, regulations, standards, and practices designed to reduce the risk of chemical-related incidents. Elements to consider when it comes to chemical safety include following safe handling procedures, knowing the potential hazards posed by a specific chemical, and understanding the safety profiles of substances. 

Numerous government and global agencies oversee chemical safety in the United States, including the following.

  • Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA): OSHA creates general and industry-specific standards that pertain to permissible exposure limits, chemical sampling, hazard controls, and chemical hazard communication.
  • U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB): The CSB is responsible for improving chemical safety standards at the national level. They also investigate potential hazards, chemical accidents, and reports of unsafe chemical handling.
  • U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA): Though the EPA focuses more on the environmental impact of chemicals, they regularly write laws and acts that are designed to improve the way chemicals are handled and used.
  • World Health Organization (WHO): The WHO is a global organization. Among its responsibilities is the operation of the International Programme on Chemical Safety (IPCS) which features representatives from several countries. 

Advance Your Public Health Career with an MSPH in Industrial Hygiene

Pursue Your Degree Online From Tulane University
Find Out More

Prominent Chemicals and Toxins 

Some common hazardous chemicals found in workplaces across the country include arsenic, lead, benzene, chromium, cadmium, and toluene. Pesticides and asbestos must also be considered when it comes to chemical safety in the workplace. 

  • Arsenic: Arsenic is a common chemical often found in the electronics, agricultural, glassmaking, and wood preservation industries. It has several beneficial uses, but failing to take the proper precautions can lead to permanent nervous, circulatory, and respiratory system damage. Exposure may also lead to some types of cancer.
  • Lead: Though the United States has worked hard to reduce occupational lead, it is still present in several industries. These include roofing, electronics, ammunition manufacturing, mining, and others. Lead exposure is very dangerous and can lead to anemia, kidney disease, brain damage, fertility issues, and birth defects.
  • Benzene: Found in oil and fuel production facilities, plastics manufacturing, some detergents, and pesticides, benzene is another common chemical hazard. Its improper use can lead to immunodeficiencies, blood clotting disorders, and even bone marrow damage.
  • Chromium: Chromium is mainly found in metals, so it is most common in foundries and industrial facilities. Improper exposure can cause asthma and other respiratory illnesses as well as problems with the eyes and ears. Long-term exposure can cause kidney and liver disease.
  • Cadmium: Cadmium is often found in batteries, solar panels, plastic stabilizers, and countless platings and coatings used on a host of products. It can cause serious health issues, including major neurological and reproductive harm. Cadmium can also lead to permanent gastrointestinal damage and cause a variety of cancers.
  • Toluene: Toluene is found in different types of glues, paint thinners, and leather tanners. It is also very common in printing facilities, such as newspaper presses and labeling facilities. Over time, it can cause anxiety, long-term muscle fatigue, dermatitis, insomnia, and liver and kidney damage. 


The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) manages the Pesticide Illness and Injury Surveillance program in an effort to reduce the hazards associated with these chemicals in the workplace and in the general population. Texas and California, the two most prominent U.S. agricultural states, see the most pesticide-related occupational illness in the nation. 

Short-term pesticide exposure can cause headaches, dizziness, nausea, vomiting, and skin irritation. Long-term exposure can lead to serious health consequences, including cancer. As a result, the Environmental Protection Agency sets forth guidelines for the appropriate use of pesticides across the nation. 


Asbestos is a fibrous silicate that was once an extremely common fireproof building material. Though the U.S. government banned the use of asbestos in construction in 1989, numerous homes built prior to that year still contain this highly toxic element. Auto mechanics, HVAC techs, electricians, and various cement and chemical plant workers are at risk every single day. 

Asbestos can lead to many health issues. The most serious of these is mesothelioma, a cancer of the tissues lining the lungs. The condition is very painful and often difficult to treat, which is why organizations have such strict regulations surrounding the use, removal, and disposal of asbestos-containing materials. 

Strategies for Controlling Chemical Exposure in the Workplace 

OSHA recommends hazard recognition and exposure reduction as part of a plan to promote chemical safety in the workplace. Hazard recognition teaches employees the potential dangers, while exposure reduction consists of a four-part plan to reduce risk of chemical exposure in the workplace.

Hazard Recognition   

Workers have numerous resources at their disposal for learning more about the potential hazards of chemicals in the workplace. Chemical safety symbols (or pictograms that help employees recognize hazards even when they do not recognize the chemical) are extraordinarily helpful. Examples include the skull and crossbones symbol, indicating the danger of severe illness or death; and the flame, indicating that a material catches fire easily. 

Exposure Reduction   

Controlling chemical exposure is the primary method for protecting workers. It encompasses a four-part approach. 

  • Personal Protective Equipment (PPE): PPE involves the use of protective clothing like smocks, lab coats, safety glasses, gloves, face shields, and even respirators where required.
  • Administrative and Work Practice Controls: Rotating job assignments and adjusting schedules to prevent long-term exposure to hazardous chemicals fall under administrative and work practice controls.
  • Engineering Controls: These controls entail changing processes at the organizational level. It may involve isolating certain processes in a facility, installing fume hoods and dilution ventilation systems, or investing in new technology to reduce dust.
  • Elimination and Substitution: This control involves eliminating a particular chemical from the facility, or substituting it with a chemical that is less volatile or dangerous. 

Chemical Waste Management 

Chemical waste management is a huge part of chemical safety in the workplace. The EPA regulates the management of all chemical waste, including that produced in residential, commercial, and industrial facilities. The 1976 Resource Conservation and Recovery Act is the framework that helps the EPA manage potentially hazardous waste. 

Though the Act is several decades old, the EPA recently adopted a “cradle to grave” hazardous waste management program. The program ensures chemical waste is properly managed from the very moment it is created or extracted, including when it is being transported, stored, used, or treated until it is properly disposed of. Countless regulations apply to chemical waste management depending on the waste type, its origin, and its potential hazards. 

Chemical Safety Training 

Chemical safety in the workplace depends heavily on regular chemical safety training. Though OSHA does not require specific classes or training, the organization does require employers to participate in hazard communication programs, which are more commonly known as HAZCOM.

Every employer must provide a written HAZCOM. The program must include an inventory of all the hazardous chemicals in the workplace, the tags or labels on each of those chemicals, how employees have been trained, and how the Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) have been maintained. 

Training Programs and Materials    

Countless chemical safety training programs exist online. A handful of private companies have built exceptional courses approved by OSHA, and in many cases, the government agencies themselves provide slides, PDFs, and other resources that can be used to teach chemical safety in the workplace. Many organizations rely on their compliance officers or health and safety engineers to find and implement these training courses. 

Disaster Response   

While no company or organization ever wants to face a chemical-related disaster, the aforementioned 2023 Ohio train derailment that spilled more than 115,000 gallons of vinyl chloride on the ground serves as a stark reminder that catastrophes do happen. Part of working with chemicals involves developing an effective disaster communication plan that is helpful in ensuring a coordinated response to these incidents. 

After brainstorming every possible chemical-related disaster that a company may face, creating a communication plan is all about finding the best way to get the right information to the right people as quickly and efficiently as possible. 

For example, in the event of a major chemical spill, nearby employees should receive immediate medical care and the EPA should be notified. In some cases, the facility may need to evacuate other employees without causing panic. A disaster communication plan is crucial for this. 

Chemical Safety Examples

Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) are one of the most widespread chemical safety examples in the United States. These sheets can be found in virtually every business in the country, whether that business manufactures caustic chemicals or stores ammonia-containing window cleaners in a closet. An MSDS is a highly standardized document that provides crucial health and safety information about a specific product or chemical. 

The chemical manufacturer is responsible for ensuring they have communicated any potential hazards to the people who are handling the chemicals, and the MSDS is one of the simplest and most effective ways to do that. 

Another excellent example of good chemical safety includes shift leaders who are diligent about ensuring employees’ use of PPE. These individuals take on key responsibilities. They may incentivize employees to remember their equipment or ensure that PPE for the next shift is clean and accessible. They may also discipline employees who refuse to wear their PPE as required by OSHA. 

Who Is Responsible for Safety in the Workplace? 

Several organizations are responsible for chemical safety in the workplace, including overseeing, tracking, or implementing. Chemical manufacturers are responsible for communicating potential hazards to the chemical end users. Organizations like OSHA are responsible for keeping people who work with chemicals safe through hazard recognition and exposure reduction. The EPA helps by regulating the disposal of chemical waste with a cradle-to-grave approach. 

Employers are responsible for ensuring their employees have access to MSDS. They must also provide their employees with the PPE to safely carry out their daily tasks, and they must immediately address any reports of potential hazardous exposure. 

Organizations across the nation work hard to regulate mild to highly dangerous and carcinogenic chemicals found in workplaces, but that should not be the only strategy.  It is ultimately up to every single person — every worker, every manager, and every public health official — to remain informed and vigilant. 

Do Your Part to Promote Chemical Safety in the Workplace 

Proper chemical safety in the workplace relies on teams of individuals across multiple agencies and departments working together to follow regulations and commit to best practices. An Online Master of Science in Public Health in Industrial Hygiene (MSPH IH) from Tulane University can prepare you for an exciting career in one of several chemical safety fields. 

Whether you choose to work as a compliance officer, a health and safety engineer, an occupational health and safety technician, or any number of other roles, you can help keep workers, the public, and the environment safe. 

Discover how to get started today. 

Advance Your Public Health Career with an MSPH in Industrial Hygiene

Pursue Your Degree Online From Tulane University
Find Out More

Recommended Readings

5 High-Paying Industrial Hygiene Jobs

Workplace Ergonomics and Safety: Tips, Equipment, and Examples

Tips for Accident Prevention in the Workplace


Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Acute Pesticide-Related Illnesses Charts

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Pesticide Illness & Injury Surveillance

Chemical Safety, Safety Data Sheet Search

Coalition to Prevent Chemical Disasters, Recent Chemical Incidents

CNN, “A First Report on the Ohio Toxic Train Wreck Was Released”

CNN, “The Ohio Toxic Train Wreck was ‘100% Preventable’”

Environmental Protection Agency, Learn the Basics of Hazardous Waste

Environmental Protection Agency, Occupational Pesticide Safety and Health

Occupational Safety and Health Administration, Chemical Hazards and Toxic Substances

Occupational Safety and Health Administration, “How to Safely Handle Dangerous Substances in the Workplace”

Safeopedia, Chemical Safety

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Risk Management Program (RMP) Rule