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Common Hazardous Materials Found on Jobsites

Employers, are your employees exposed to hazardous materials on their jobsite or within their workplace? Regardless of what industry you operate in, odds are your employees will probably have some level of exposure to hazardous materials, or HAZMAT.

The level of exposure and specifically to which hazardous materials varies greatly by industry. For example, an office worker might be asked to handle and dispose of materials such as glue, cleaning spray, or photocopy toner. A construction worker might be exposed to a variety of natural and man-made hazardous materials such as asbestos in insulation, lead in paint, and silica in concrete. A landscaper might be exposed to harmful pesticides during their workday. A chemist working in a chemical processing plant might have varying levels of exposure to chemicals such as ammonia, chlorine, and ethylene oxide. Acids, solvents, and petroleum-based products are also used throughout these industries.

OSHA Regulatory Guidance for HAZMAT Exposure

It is critical for employers to know and understand their compliance requirements regarding employee exposure to hazardous materials. Both OSHA General and Construction Industry standards contain subparts and sections which provide guidance in the areas of identification, avoidance, exposure, training, mitigation, and management applicable to toxic and hazardous materials. These include:

General Industry:

Construction Industry:

As for the usual suspects, employees can commonly encounter the following hazardous materials in varying amounts either in their pure solid, liquid, or vapor form, or contained within a finished product on their jobsite or within their workplace:

    • Asbestos.  This naturally occurring fibrous mineral with high resistance to heat has wide and historic use in products such as fireproofing material, pipe insulation, floor tiles, cement pipe and sheet, roofing felts and shingles, ceiling tiles, fire-resistant drywall, drywall joint compounds, and acoustical products. Typical exposure occurs within the construction industry during the removal of asbestos and the renovation and maintenance of buildings and structures containing asbestos. Its microscopic fibers can remain airborne for extended periods of time. They enter the body when a person inhales or ingests airborne particles that become embedded in the tissues of the respiratory or digestive systems, which can cause asbestosis, lung cancer, and mesothelioma. The chronic symptoms of these diseases generally do not appear for 20 or more years after initial exposure.
    • Benzene.  This organic petroleum based chemical liquid is widely used in crude oil and natural gas production. Exposure typically occurs during production of plastics, detergents, pesticides, and other chemicals. Highly toxic and flammable. It is a carcinogen that can affect the liver, kidneys, lungs, heart, brain and bones, and can cause strand breaks in human DNA.
    • Crystalline Silica.  This naturally occurring mineral is found in the earth's crust. Materials like sand, stone, concrete, and mortar contain crystalline silica. It is also used to make products such as glass, pottery, ceramics, bricks, and artificial stone. Its microscopic particles are created and go airborne during the cutting, sawing, grinding, drilling, and crushing of stone, rock, concrete, brick, block, and mortar. Respirable crystalline silica dust can cause Silicosis, an incurable lung disease that can lead to disability and death; as well as lung cancer, kidney disease, and Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD). Most exposure occurs within the construction industry.     
    • “Heavy” or Toxic Metals. These represent a common exposure across all industries. Additional details on each individual toxic metal below can be accessed online

Arsenic.   This solid and naturally occurring metal can be found within rock, water ,and soil. It is commonly used in wood preservation, glass production, nonferrous metal alloys, and electronic semiconductor manufacturing. Inorganic arsenic is also found in coke oven emissions associated with the smelter industry. Exposure can cause cancer, respiratory and circulatory problems, and damage to the nervous system.

Beryllium.  This solid and naturally occurring metal is one of the most widely used elements within industries such as aerospace, automotive, medical, and telecommunications. Exposure can cause sensitization, lung disease, and skin disease.

Cadmium.  This solid metal is derived from zinc by-products and is highly toxic. Exposure typically occurs during smelting and refining of metals, and manufacturing batteries, plastics, coatings, and solar panels. It can cause lung and respiratory damage, kidney disease,  cancer, and damage to the neurological, reproductive, and gastrointestinal systems.

Hexavalent Chromium.  One of the states of the element chromium, this industrial processed solid is often mixed with other metals to make alloys and stainless steel, and also used as a coating to prevent rust on metallic surfaces. Exposure usually occurs in welding operations, spray painting, and chrome plating. This highly hazardous carcinogen can also trigger asthma, respiratory irritation, and damage to the kidneys and liver.

Lead. This solid and naturally occurring metal was historically one of the most widely used elements in batteries, roofing materials, toys, electronics and paint. As it leaches into the blood system, it can cause anemia, brain damage, kidney disease, and birth defects. 

Mercury. This naturally occurring liquid metal is widely used in measuring instruments such as thermometers and barometers, fluorescent lamps, dental fillings, telescopes, cosmetics, and vaccines. Mercury compounds are highly toxic and can cause damage to the nervous system, digestive system, immune system, lungs, thyroid, and kidneys.

 Make sure that you and your employees are aware of hazardous materials common to your jobsites.  Complete information on this and related subjects is covered in the RCRA Hazardous Waste Generator course from National Environmental Trainers.

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