Something in the air smells funny

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Written by Isaac Rudik at Compliance Solutions Canada Inc.

Chlorine is possibly the most commonly used toxin in business. Its use is so widespread that few people even notice “death head” label warnings anymore yet chlorine can cause worker illness, injury and death.

You can’t avoid noticing chlorine in the air: It’s pungent, biting, eye-tearing, odour is unmistakable – and potentially very dangerous. That’s why, when a train carrying chlorine tankers derails or a tanker truck overturns, an entire town or neighbourhood is quickly evacuated by authorities while hospitals go on standby and reporters rush to the scene.

For example, not long ago a chlorine manufacturer in Canada was pumping the gas into an awaiting rail tanker. But the coupling was not properly fastened to the train car from the feed pipe and chlorine leaked into the air. Two employees working at the tanker plus one who was nearby and rushed to their aid were overcome by the toxic effects, suffering injuries to their lungs, eyes and exposed skin. People in nearby businesses and apartment buildings were hustled onto busses and taken to a school as a precaution until the air cleared of gas and the leak sealed.

As a toxic gas that irritates and can even destroy the respiratory system, chlorine is a potentially lethal industrial ingredient. Because it is heavier than air, it can accumulate at the bottom of poorly ventilated spaces. Even more dangerous, chlorine gas is a strong oxidizer which can ignite flammable materials.

Easily Overlooked

The risks of chlorine are easily overlooked and even forgotten about until there is an incident.

When most people think of chlorine, they either think of a laundry product as in chlorine bleach or what gets dumps in a swimming pool to control algae and bacteria. Indeed, many of us use chlorine products regularly without giving it a second thought.

But, chlorine is employed for everything from water treatment and pulp bleaching in paper mills to disinfecting equipment in food processing plants. Moreover, it is widely employed in producing countless consumer products ranging from laundry cleaners and tires to antifreeze, household cleaners and pharmaceuticals.

In fact, the use of chlorine is so widespread that few people even notice the “death head” warnings on labels anymore despite the fact that, in many industrial applications, chlorine can cause worker illness, injury and even death.

But industrial facilities that produce or use chlorine cannot be sanguine about its handling and storage.

Breathe Easily

When workers breathe even low concentrations of chlorine, it can aggravate the respiratory system and exposure to the gas can irritate the eyes because it reacts with water and cells, changing it into hydrochloric acid and hypochlorous acid. Neither is pleasant.

So it is incumbent upon businesses to take simple steps to provide adequate protection.

Workers should be issued gloves, masks and protective clothing for protection. At the same time, work areas in which chlorine is present need portable air sampling devices, complete with exposure level alarms. Finally, fume hoods are a must to enhance localized ventilation.

Chlorine gas is one of those industrial components that carry a significant risk but which too many businesses seem to overlook – until it’s too late. Conducting a risk audit is one way to help make sure that the gas stays in the container and workers won’t suffer if there’s an accidental leak.

Isaac Rudik is a compliance consultant with Compliance Solutions Canada Inc., Canada’s largest provider of health, safety and environmental compliance solutions to industrial, institutional and government facilities.

E-mail Isaac at irudik@csc-inc.ca or phone him at 905-761-5354.