An introduction to Occupational Health and Safety
In the first six months of 2012, the National Statistics Office reported that 1,482 workers suffered work related injuries in Malta, five of which resulted in death. (National Statistics Office, 2012) Occupational Health & Safety (OHS) aims at protecting the physical, social and psychological wellbeing of people from illness resulting from the materials, processes or procedures used in their work. (Coppеe, 2005). So how does an understanding of science lead to a better understanding of OHS? What is Science?
According to Oxford’s dictionary, “science encompasses the systematic study of the structure and behaviour of the physical and natural world…” (Oxford Dictionaries, 2006) Everything we hear, see, smell, taste, and touch involves intricate series of chemical reactions and interactions in our body; not to mention that we owe our very existence to a multitude of chemical reactions. In a nutshell, chemistry is the scientific study of matter and the changes it can undergo. (Brady & Senese, 2007) The Chemical Aspect
Although there are countless types of matter all around us, this complexity is composed of various combinations of 118 elements, systematically organised in what is called a periodic table depending on common properties, such as number of electrons in the outer shell and the elements’ amount of shells. (Puddephatt & Monaghan, 1986) The reactivity of an element depends directly on the completeness of its outer electron shell. For example, if an element in the far right column, known as noble gases, has an atomic mass of 10, split in 2 electrons in the inner and 8 in the outer shell, this makes it complete and thus non-reactive. However, if we have elements that have an incomplete outer shell, such as in group 1 and 7 we know that these are highly reactive because they need to lose or gain an electron to reach a stable state. (Fischer & Peters, 1970) Elements and chemical reactions are not confined to a laboratory but are found all around us, including the workplace cleaner’s closet, which if handled irresponsibly could cause chemical reactions that pose a hazard to the worker’s safety. (Husin, Mohamad, Abdullah, & Anuar, 2012) Acids and Alkalis
Chemicals are split into acids and bases depending if they give out hydrogen ions (acids) or hydrogen oxide ions (bases) when mixed in an aqueous solution. If fumes or mist (chemical agents) of concentrated acid and/or bases are inhaled, humans can experience a range of symptoms ranging in severity from irritation to pulmonary edema, causing water to form in the lung preventing oxygen from reaching the bloodstream. (Walker, 2007) Due to their corrosive nature, if they come into contact with the skin, eyes or internal organs chemical burns will take place. Acid burns usually cause immediate pain and tissue damage as in the case of hydrofluoric acid found in heavy duty cleaners, which penetrates the skin rapidly, at times also causing bone damage. In contrast; with strong corrosive bases, as found in some oven cleaners containing sodium or potassium hydroxide, one may not notice skin contact right away since the pain is delayed; this usually leads to longer exposure resulting in irreparable tissue and organ damage. (Rhee & Goldstein, 2009) The strength of acids and bases is measured using the pH scale by means of universal pH indicators. Acids are identified as having a pH of 0 to 6 having higher to lower acidity, neutral being 7 and increased base from 8 to 14. When acids and alkalis (bases) are mixed with other chemicals, combustion usually occurs. In addition, acids, when reacting with certain metals, release hydrogen which is a highly flammable substance thus posing a grave fire hazard. It is relatively easy to neutralise an acid by mixing it with an alkaline (or vice-versa) bringing it to a neutral pH. (Prichard & Lawn, 2003) Classification and Labelling of Chemicals
As we have seen so far we can appreciate more how...
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