Chemical Agents in Healthcare
The use of chemicals is widespread in healthcare and includes chemicals such as:
- cleaning agents
- disinfecting and sterilising agents
- laboratory chemicals
- medical gases
- anaesthetic agents
- cytotoxic drugs and pharmaceutical substances.
Any chemical that has the potential to cause harm is called a hazardous or dangerous chemical. Such chemicals may:
- cause health effects, for example be a respiratory sensitiser or skin irritant or sensitiser;
- be a physical hazard, for example a flammable, explosive or oxidising chemical;
- affect the environment, if they are used, stored or disposed of incorrectly.
Healthcare workers (and in certain cases, the unborn child) may suffer health effects when dangerous chemicals enter the body. The main routes of exposure are:
- inhalation: breathing in the chemical;
- absorption: through skin contact or a splash in the eye;
- ingestion: via contaminated food or hands; and
- inoculation: when a sharp object such as a needle punctures the skin.
The Safety, Health and Welfare at Work (Chemical Agents) Regulations and the Safety, Health and Welfare at Work (Carcinogens) Regulations require that employers must assess any work activity likely to involve a risk of exposure to chemicals, carcinogens or mutagens. For information on chemical risk assessment see Short Guide to the Safety, Health and Welfare at Work Chemical Agents Regulations, 2001 and Your Steps to Chemical Safety. Employers should also have emergency plans and procedures in the event of an uncontrolled release, leak or spillage of a dangerous chemical.