There’s no Safety Data Sheet for These Six Chemical Exposures

Workers have been trained to rely on chemical labels and safety data sheets (SDSs) for chemical hazard information—and rightly so, most of the time. However, some chemical hazards don’t come neatly packaged and labeled. That doesn’t make them any less dangerous.

Yesterday, we looked at the hazards of vehicle exhaust and flammable vapors. Here are four more unlabeled chemical hazards.


Radon is a common, naturally occurring radioactive element that causes cancer. It can be found all over the country and comes from the breakdown of uranium in soil, rock, and water, which is then released into the air. It enters buildings through cracks and holes in the foundation and then becomes trapped inside. Radon is the second-leading cause of lung cancer in the United States, behind smoking—and smokers are more vulnerable to radon’s carcinogenic effects.

Protect workers from radon exposure by:

  • Testing the workplace for radon using an inexpensive test kit;
  • Encouraging workers to test their homes for radon; and
  • Installing a soil suction radon reduction system if a radon problem exists, which is generally inexpensive to install and effective at removing radon.

Mineral Hazards

Whenever land is excavated, naturally occurring minerals may be ground and disturbed in a way that creates hazardous inhalable dusts. Silica is perhaps the most widely recognized, but workers may also encounter asbestos, arsenic, mercury, and pyrite. Workers exposed to these dusts can develop chronic, progressive, debilitating lung disease or cancer. As with radon, workers who smoke are at increased risk.

Protect workers during construction, rock drilling, stonecutting, quarry work, tunneling, abrasive blasting, and oil and gas extraction (fracking) work by:

  • Using wet methods;
  • Using vacuums or sweeping compounds to minimize dust generation during cleanup;
  • Using local exhaust ventilation to draw off dust;
  • Using barriers and enclosures to separate workers from dust;
  • Providing respiratory protection; and
  • Prohibiting smoking.

Volatile Organic Chemicals

Modern furnishings, flooring materials, and paints can all "off-gas"—give off compounds as they age. Formaldehyde and other volatile organic compounds (VOCs) may be released into the air. These compounds can cause eye and respiratory irritation and headaches in workers, even at low exposure levels. Levels of VOCs in the air may be especially high during renovation and remodeling activities, such as painting and carpet installation or when new furnishings are purchased.

Minimize VOCs in your workplace by:

  • Choosing solid wood over pressed wood in furnishings and structural components; pressed wood gives off high VOC levels;
  • Buying only composite wood that meets low formaldehyde emissions requirements; and
  • Asking vendors about low-emission paints, carpets, and other surfacing materials when you plan remodeling or renovation activities.

Products of Decomposition

Products of decomposition—for example, methane and hydrogen sulfide gases, which are created when sewage and similar products decay—may be present even though no one invited them. These potentially hazardous gases can overcome workers who encounter them, as sometimes happens when farmworkers enter manure pits. Hydrogen sulfide gas and methane are also flammable.

Protect workers by:

  • Identifying operations like manure pits or sewage treatment plants that can generate dangerous decomposition products;
  • Dealing with plumbing and sewage problems promptly;
  • Ensuring that seldom-used drains are not allowed to dry out, removing the water barrier that keeps sewer gases at bay; and
  • Monitoring airborne concentrations of hazardous gases in these areas when workers are present.

Need more information on clearing the workplace air? You’ll find it at®.

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