Toxic exposure for workers in an industrial setting can be minimized or entirely prevented by using proper industrial hygiene practices.
Toxins in the environment are unavoidable, especially nowadays when industrial settlings have started to move closer and closer to community settings. They are present in the food we eat, the water we drink, the air we breathe, and many of the household items we use on a daily basis. Because they are mostly invisible, they go unnoticed and are harmless if exposure is limited. But unfortunately, the growth in industrial manufacturing, fossil fuel consumption, and the need for fast crop production which grew the use of herbicides has dramatically changed the extent of environmental toxic exposure.
The biggest issue is that it’s not as simple to identify and eliminate toxic agents. Many of the products and processes that may contribute to potential environmental toxic exposure are essential to modern life, and efforts to reduce their use is strongly influenced by policies, economic reasons, and lack of extensive research. And although there are some efforts being made to regulate the use of chemicals and toxic waste, the issue needs to be better addressed and prioritized.
Toxic exposure in a modern era can be affecting everyone to a certain extent but most at risk are industrial workers and communities living close to industrial settings. Unfortunately, making the environment safe for communities might require more resources, time, and obstacles to overcome but toxic exposure for workers in an industrial setting can be minimized or entirely prevented by using proper industrial hygiene practices.
Understanding the Issue of Environmental Toxic Exposure for Industrial Workers and Communities
Though environmental toxic agents can be both organic or synthetic, there is an undeniable link between the increasing threat of toxins and industrialization. The dangers associated with any given toxin are largely determined by the amount and level of exposure, and unfortunately increasing industrial processes have fundamentally altered both. Dangerous levels of arsenic were once limited to natural concentrations in rocks and soil, but humans are now at risk of exposure from synthetic arsenic and arsenic waste from coal-burning power plants, as well as mining and smelting operations.
The increased need for consumption and the industrial development of modern society brought the apparition of plastics and other synthetic materials, the large-scale application of fertilizers and pesticides required for industrialized agriculture, and the growth in the pharmaceutical industry. Combined, all of these (and more) have released a slew of chemicals into the environment, the effects of which on humans are incredibly complex and largely unknown.
A toxic substance can exist in various forms (liquid, solid, or vapor) and enter the body via various routes (ingestion, inhalation, skin contact). Opportunities for exposure are not limited to a single setting (industrial, residential, agricultural) or medium (water, air, soil, plant, animal, manufactured goods). Toxins in the environment are unstable, making it difficult to determine their presence and level.
Depending on the industry, workers may be exposed to numerous dangerous substances which increases their risk of developing a serious disease. For example, scientific studies in the United States and Europe have identified hazardous working conditions and high rates of occupational toxic exposure in the high-tech industry. The storage, use, and disposal of a wide range of hazardous substances is required in the manufacture and assembly of high-tech electronic equipment. Significant amounts of solvents, acids, alkalies, metals, gases, plastics, resins, and fiberglass are used and accidents, faulty equipment, and insufficient procedures and processes can expose workers to hazardous conditions. Workers in the manufacturing industry are the most likely to be exposed to hazardous conditions. Almost every manufacturing job requires the use of chemicals for cleaning, stripping, or degreasing. Maintenance personnel who enter enclosed or confined spaces and are exposed to toxic substances may face particularly hazardous conditions.
Polluting industries are more likely to be located in low-income communities of color, who also face more social stressors, making them more vulnerable to the health effects of toxic chemical exposures than others. Because of the expansion of unconventional extraction techniques, more people are living near oil and gas development, as well as near industrial animal operations, both of which have suggestive evidence of increased exposure to hazardous pollutants and adverse health effects. Because of the release of toxic chemicals, new and legacy industries, combined with climate change, pose unique health risks to communities living near industrial settings.
When speaking about this issue, exposure to heavy metals must be taken into account as well. Some people associate the term ”toxic exposure” with man-made chemicals, but naturally occurring metals and minerals can be just as harmful. For example, arsenic, a naturally occurring element is used for a wide range of practical applications such as wood preservatives, pesticides, feed additives, and materials used to manufacture car batteries and semiconductors. It is also extremely toxic and in high enough concentrations can damage vital organs and cause death. Another example is aluminum which is commonly used in foods, beverages, and medications. Exposure to this element can also occur when a worker inhales aluminum dust in the workplace, when a person lives near places where aluminum is mined or processed, or when a person lives near hazardous waste sites.
The majority of cases of heavy metal exposure are caused by inhaling or ingesting these hazardous agents from the environment. It is important to note that heavy metals accumulate in the body over time and can cause serious diseases such as kidney cancer, lung cancer, skin cancer, and liver cancer. Prolonged exposure to heavy metals can cause behavioral disruptions, hallucinations, and personality changes. Heavy metals can also harm the circulatory, digestive, reproductive, and nervous systems. Furthermore, occupational exposure to mercury poses a significant risk to employees’ health. Currently, over 15 million gold miners around the world work with mercury.
While our understanding of the toxic effects of modern chemicals is limited, some of the risks associated with industrialization are well known. According to the World Health Organization, outdoor air pollution causes more than 4 million deaths each year from stroke, heart disease, lung cancer, and chronic respiratory diseases. The use of fossil fuels such as coal and oil in industrial production, the operation of motor vehicles, waste incineration, and building heating are all major sources of air pollution.
Why Industrial Hygiene Is Extremely Important
One of the highest priorities for companies should be to keep employees safe and healthy. However, ensuring the safety and health of employees can be a difficult task. Strong industrial hygiene and chemical safety programs can reduce workplace hazards and provide employees with the tools and protection they need to stay safe in the unfortunate event that potential hazards arise.
Industrial hygiene is critical because it protects workers from a variety of accidents and illnesses that can develop years after they stop working and lead to fatalities. Among them are:
- Hepatitis B and C which are common occupational hazards in hospitals and laboratories,
- Chronic bronchitis, asbestosis, and pneumonitis which are common in industries like mining where dust inhalation is common,
- In industries where workers’ skin comes into contact with toxic substances, skin infections such as dermatitis, eczema, rashes, and blisters can occur.
- Poisoning can occur when workers are exposed to pesticides, herbicides, formaldehyde, or cleaning agents.
- Workers who work on construction and mining sites where detonations occur may suffer from hearing loss.
- Cancer caused by occupational toxic exposure to asbestos or PFAS
Many processes necessitate the use of hazardous chemicals in the workplace. Industrial cleaning fluids, testing chemicals, industrial processes, and other substances and conditions may pose a risk to the health of people and the environment. To this extent, industrial hygiene is critical in any industry and for any type of manufacturer, even if we’re talking about chocolate factories. This is because there is a risk of health problems arising whenever workers handle chemicals.
Some of the more hazardous industries with a high risk of toxic exposure for workers are:
- Power generation
- Textile industry
Having proper industrial hygiene practices is crucial not only to ensure the safety of workers but also, in the long term it protects the companies from possible liabilities.
With so much progress in the modern world, the issue of toxic exposure seems to be more and more present and in many forms. But while completely eradicating it might be a lengthy and complex process, safeguarding through proper practices and information is the key.
About the author
Jonathan Sharp is the CFO of Environmental Litigation Group, P.C., a law firm in based Birmingham, Alabama, that helps workers and communities suffering as a result of exposure to toxic agents.