Although occupational health and safety laws often stipulate that it is the duty of an employer to ensure the workplace is safe, in practice, an employer may have to implement various measures to achieve this intent of the law. One measure implemented by companies involved in acid cleaning is to safeguard themselves against acid related accidents and injuries by enforcing a policy of purchasing only the safest possible acidic cleaning product (ACP) that does the job.

The first step in minimizing accidents and injuries at work is to make certain that we have chosen an inherently safe physical environment which includes choosing the safest possible materials in the workplace. It follows that selection of the safest ACP, is the first step even before implementing the related local and federal safe handling and storage requirements. To realize the importance of this first step, the converse of using the safest ACP may be described in an analogy of a person who expends much time and effort on the details of utilizing a high-rise building which has been otherwise built on an unsafe foundation. In acid cleaning, the foundation is the ACP of choice. If it is not the safest possible product for the job, it carries a higher risk of mishap.

It defies logic and even common sense not to have a policy of using the safest ACP as it compares to building a high-rise building on a faulty foundation. In the event of accident or injury, an employer who lacks such policy can not say that they had done everything reasonably within their power to prevent the mishap.

Accidents and injuries due to unsafe acids tend to recur throughout the industry, suggesting that more than the usual standard of safe handling and storage may be needed to prevent them. Yet, safer ACPs of choice are repeatedly ignored by some managers for acid cleaning projects. In these instances, the managers may not be able to prove that they had done everything within the scope of their authority to avoid mishaps while the solution has been a public domain knowledge.

The economic reasons for using the safest possible product are also compelling. In North America alone, our sensitivity to chemical safety issues remain to be at all time high, and safety with chemicals appears to continue to be one of the major concerns. In response to public demand for more safety with chemicals, the governments react to accidents and injuries from unregulated workplaces with an ever increasing number of health and safety legislations, to the extent that assessing the applicability of regulations to each workplace has become a costly day to day task for all employers. With each new regulatory compliance, we incur an additional cost that may be traced to those who ignored the bigger picture for their short-term gains of choosing to work with cheaper unsafe acids while safer ACPs were available to them. Increased regulatory compliance costs affect our prices of finished goods and our international competitiveness in the global markets. Even if the governments do not react with more safety legislation to the acid tank explosion at our pulp and paper mills, and acid related injuries in pickling bath environments of metal processing plants, we still continue to pay through the cost of Workers' Compensation benefits and the cost to our health-care system to mention just two. Of course, legislators could choose to act more punitively by explicitly imposing substantial fines on repeat offenders in connexion with not selecting the safest possible ACPs for their own use at workplace. It has been argued that industry and public interests can both be served through such punitive legislative measures that reduce the costly and inefficient process of the ever increasing regulatory restrictions that tend to assume that the entire industry is guilty of unsafe practices.

Under worker empowerment programs, the individual employees can also be encouraged to help themselves and their companies by taking a more active role in determining how safe a particular acid is to them if they have to encounter it at their workplace. One approach to investigate the relative safety of an acid is to identify the Workplace Hazardous Material Information System (WHMIS) classification(s) and symbol(s) of the acid and its alternative ACPs, using the product material safety data sheets (MSDS). The desirability of the acids/ACP may then be ranked from the lowest to the highest number of hazardous classifications, using a tabulation method:

However useful and informative is this method of tabulation, it is not by itself sufficient for a complete evaluation. From the hazardous classifications alone, one cannot determine the relative safety of two acids/ACPs with the same number of WHMIS classifications.

For a more detailed analysis, let us consider one of the acids known as hydrochloric (muriatic) acid which has two WHMIS classifications (the same number of classifications as pure acetic acid or pure vinegar). Although this acid, in low concentrations, is normally safe in our stomach, its industrial victims tell us otherwise. It has been at the center of explosions and injuries which should be alone the reason for wanting to learn about its properties and relative safety in our acid cleaning environments. At the first glance, the MSDS for hydrochloric acid should reveal that it is a fuming acid with irritating levels at as little as 10 parts per million (ppm) in the air. The effects of exposure to its vapour alone can result in nasal and throat irritation, choking, coughing, difficulty in breathing (at 50-100 ppm), burns and ulcers to nose and throat, and life-threatening accumulation of fluid in the lungs (at 0.1-0.2%). Now, with this much information, the individual worker should become interested to find all that there is about this substance. It is possible that the workplace MSDS is incomplete, and more often than not it is highly recommended to consult with other independent sources of information on the substance in question or on the safer alternative for the substance. This additional route of searching for information may take you through the Internet or trade directories for suppliers of chemicals. Having done so, I found that long-term exposure to hydrochloric acid could produce dental erosion, chronic bronchitis, stomach pain, and in one study an excess in lung cancer was reported. On the positive side, there are safer ACPs available for replacement of most acids with non of the above effects, and some with more than 300% less toxicity than hydrochloric acid.

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