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Safe Handling and Usage of Chemicals

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The ILO Code of Practice

Much of the information and excerpts in this chapter are taken from the Code of Practice “Safety in the Use of Chemicals at Work” of the International Labour Organization (ILO 1993). The ILO Code provides practical guidelines on the implementation of the provisions of the Chemicals Convention, 1990 (No. 170), and Recommendation, 1990 (No. 177). The object of the Code is to provide guidance to those who may be engaged in the framing of provisions relating to the use of chemicals at work, such as competent authorities, the management in companies where chemicals are supplied or used, and emergency services, which should also offer guidelines to suppliers’, employers’ and workers’ organizations. The Code provides minimum standards and is not intended to discourage competent authorities from adopting higher standards. For more detailed information on individual chemicals and chemical families, see the “Guide to chemicals” in Volume IV of this “Encyclopaedia”.

The objective (section 1.1.1) of the ILO Code of Practice Safety in the Use of Chemicals at Work is to protect workers from the hazards of chemicals, to prevent or reduce the incidence of chemically- induced illnesses and injuries resulting from the use of chemicals at work, and consequently to enhance the protection of the general public and the environment by providing guidelines for:

  • ensuring that all chemicals for use at work—including impurities, by-products and intermediates, and wastes that may be formed—are evaluated to determine their hazards
  • ensuring that employers are provided with a mechanism for obtaining from their suppliers information about the chemicals used at work to enable them to implement effective programmes to protect workers from chemical hazards
  • providing workers with information about the chemicals at their workplaces and about appropriate preventive measures to enable them to participate effectively in safety programmes
  • establishing principles for such programmes to ensure that chemicals are used safely
  • making special provision to protect confidential information, the disclosure of which to a competitor would be liable to cause harm to an employer’s business, so long as the safety and health of workers are not compromised thereby.


Section 2 of the ILO Code of Practice outlines the general obligations, responsibilities and duties of the competent authority, the employer and the worker. The section also details the general responsibilities of suppliers and the rights of workers, and it offers guidelines regarding special provisions for the employer’s disclosure of confidential information. The final recommendations address the need for cooperation among employers, workers and their representatives.

General Obligations, Responsibilities and Duties

It is the responsibility of the appropriate governmental agency to follow existing national measures and practices, in consultation with the most representative organizations of employers and workers concerned, in order to assure safety in the use of chemicals at work. National practices and laws should be viewed in the context of international regulations, standards and systems, and with the measures and practices recommended by the ILO Code of Practice and the ILO Convention No. 170 and Recommendation No. 177.

The major focus of such measures which provide for safety of workers are, in particular:

  • the production and handling of hazardous chemicals
  • the storage of hazardous chemicals
  • the transport of hazardous chemicals, consistent with national or international transport regulations
  • the disposal and treatment of hazardous chemicals and hazardous waste products, consistent with national or international regulations.


There are various means by which the competent authority may achieve this aim. It may enact national laws and regulations; adopt, approve or recognize existing standards, codes or guidelines; and, where such standards, codes or guidelines do not exist, an authority may encourage their adoption by another authority, which can then be recognized. The governmental agency may also require that employers justify the criteria by which they are working.

According to the Code of Practice (section 2.3.1), it is the responsibility of employers to set out, in writing, their policy and arrangements on safety in the use of chemicals, as part of their general policy and arrangements in the field of occupational safety and health, and the various responsibilities exercised under these arrangements, in accordance with the objectives and principles of the Occupational Safety and Health Convention, 1981 (No. 155), and Recommendation, 1981 (No. 164). This information should be brought to the attention of their workers in a language the latter readily understand.

Workers, in turn, should take care of their own health and safety, and that of other persons who may be affected by their acts or omissions at work, as far as possible and in accordance with their training and with instructions given by their employer (section 2.3.2).

The suppliers of chemicals, whether manufacturers, importers or distributors, should ensure that, in accordance with the guidelines in the relevant paragraphs of the Code and in pursuance of the requirements of Convention No. 170 and Recommendation No. 177:

  • such chemicals have been classified or their properties assessed
  • such chemicals are marked
  • hazardous chemicals are labelled
  • chemical safety data sheets for hazardous chemicals are prepared and provided to employers.


Operational Control Measures

Certain general principles exist for the operation control of chemicals at work. These are dealt with in Section 6 of the ILO Code of Practice, which prescribes that after reviewing the chemicals being used at work and obtaining information about their hazards and making an assessment of the potential risks involved, employers should take steps to limit exposure of workers to hazardous chemicals (on the basis of the measures outlined in sections 6.4 to 6.9 of the Code), in order to protect workers against hazards from the use of chemicals at work. The measures taken should eliminate or minimize the risks, preferably by substitution of non-hazardous or less hazardous chemicals, or by the choice of better technology. When neither substitution nor engineering control are feasible, other measures, such as safe working systems and practices, personal protective equipment (PPE) and the provision of information and training will further minimize risks and may have to be relied upon for some activities entailing the use of chemicals.

When workers are potentially exposed to chemicals that are hazardous to health, they must be safeguarded against the risk of injury or disease from these chemicals. There should be no exposure which exceeds exposure limits or other exposure criteria for the evaluation and control of the working environment established by the competent authority, or by a body approved or recognized by the competent authority in accordance with national or international standards.

Control measures to provide protection for workers could be any combination of the following:

1. good design and installation practice:

  • totally enclosed process and handling systems
  • segregation of the hazardous process from the operators or from other processes


2. plants processes or work systems which minimize generation of, or suppress or contain, hazardous dust, fumes, etc., and which limit the area of contamination in the event of spills and leaks:

  • partial enclosure, with local exhaust ventilation (LEV)
  • LEV
  • sufficient general ventilation


3. work systems and practices:

  • reduction of the numbers of workers exposed and exclusion of non-essential access
  • reduction in the period of exposure to workers
  • regular cleaning of contaminated walls, surfaces, etc.
  • use and proper maintenance of engineering control measures
  • provision of means for safe storage and disposal of chemicals hazardous to health


4. personal protection (where the above measures do not suffice, suitable PPE should be provided until such time as the risk is eliminated or minimized to a level that would not pose a threat to health)

5. prohibition of eating, chewing, drinking and smoking in contaminated areas

6. provision of adequate facilities for washing, changing and storage of clothing, including arrangements for laundering contaminated clothing

7. use of signs and notices

8. adequate arrangements in the event of an emergency.

Chemicals known to have carcinogenic, mutagenic or teratogenic health effects should be kept under strict control.

Record Keeping

Record keeping is an essential element of the work practices which provide a safe use of chemicals. Records should be kept by employers on measurements of airborne hazardous chemicals. Such records should be clearly marked by date, work area and plant location. The following are some elements of section 12.4 of the ILO Code of Practice, which deals with record-keeping requirements.

  • Personal sampling measurements, including the exposures calculated, should be recorded.
  • The workers and their representatives, and the competent authority, should have access to these records.


Besides the numerical results of measurements, the monitoring data should include, for example:

  • the marking of the hazardous chemical
  • the location, nature, dimensions and other distinctive features of the workplace where static measurements were made; the exact location at which personal monitoring measurements were made, and the names and job titles of the workers involved
  • the source or sources of airborne emissions, their location and the type of work and operations being performed during sampling
  • relevant information on the functioning of the process, engineering controls, ventilation and weather conditions with respect to the emissions
  • the sampling instrument used, its accessories and the method of analysis
  • the date and exact time of sampling
  • the duration of the workers’ exposure, the use or non-use of respiratory protection and other comments relating to the exposure evaluation
  • the names of the persons responsible for the sampling and for the analytical determinations.


Records should be kept for a specified period of time determined by the competent authority. Where this has not been prescribed, it is recommended that the employer keep the records, or a suitable summary, for:

  1. at least 30 years where the record is representative of the personal exposures of identifiable employees
  2. at least 5 years in all other cases.


Information and Training

Correct instruction and quality training are essential components of a successful hazard communication programme. The ILO Code of Practice Safety in the Use of Chemicals at Work provides general principles of training (sections 10.1 and 10.2). These include the following:

  • Workers should be informed of the hazards associated with chemicals used at their workplace.
  • Workers should be instructed about how to obtain and use the information provided on labels and chemical safety data sheets.
  • Workers should be trained in the correct and effective use of the control measures, in particular the engineering control measures and measures for personal protection provided, and should be made aware of their significance.
  • Employers should use chemical safety data sheets, along with information specific to the workplace, as a basis for the preparation of instruction to workers, which should be in writing if appropriate.
  • Workers should be trained on a continuing basis in the working systems and practices to be followed and their significance for safety in the use of chemicals at work, and in how to deal with emergencies.


Review of training needs

The extent of the training and instruction received and required should be reviewed and updated simultaneously with the review of the working systems and practices referred to in section 8.2 (Review of work systems).

The review should include the examination of:

  • whether workers understand when protective equipment is required, and its limitations
  • whether workers understand the most effective use of the engineering control measures provided
  • whether workers are familiar with procedures in the event of an emergency involving a hazardous chemical
  • procedures for the exchange of information between shift workers.



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Using, Storing and Transporting Chemicals References

American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists (ACGIH), Committee on Industrial Ventilation. 1992. Industrial Ventilation: A Manual of Recommended Practices. 22nd ed. Cincinnati, OH: ACGIH.

American National Standards Institute (ANSI) and American Industrial Hygiene Association (AIHA). 1993. Laboratory Ventilation. Standard Z9.5. Fairfax, VA: AIHA.

BG-Measuring System Hazardous Substances (BGMG). 1995. Hauptverband der gewerblichen Berufsgenossenschaften. Sankt Augustin: BGMG.

Burgess, WA, MJ Ellenbecker, and RD Treitman. 1989. Ventilation for Control of the Work Environment. New York: John Wiley and Sons.

Engelhard, H, H Heberer, H Kersting, and R Stamm. 1994. Arbeitsmedizinische Informationen aus der Zentralen Stoff- und Productdatenbank ZeSP der gewerblichen Berufsgenossenschaften. Arbeitsmedizin, Sozialmedizin, Umweltmedizin. 29(3S):136-142.

International Labour Organization (ILO). 1993. Safety in the Use of Chemicals at Work. An ILO Code of Practice. Geneva: ILO.

Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). 1993. Health and Safety Standard; Occupational exposure to hazardous substances in laboratories. Federal Register. 51(42):22660-22684.