What are Chemicals Agents?

Periodic Table of Elements

Chemicals agents or chemicals are present in every workplace. For example, inks, toners, adhesives, paints, oils, lubricants, hair dye, laboratory reagents, welding fume, hazardous medicinal products and cleaning fluids are all examples of chemicals.

The term chemical agent means any chemical element or compound, on its own or admixed, as it occurs in the natural state or as produced, used or released, including release as waste, by any work activity, whether or not produced intentionally and whether or not placed on the market.

Chemical agents that have the potential to cause harm to human health or physical harm are referred to as hazardous chemical agents.

Different Forms

Chemical agents can exist in different forms, for example as solids (dust, fumes, fibres, powders), as liquids (vapour, mists) or gases. Different forms of a chemical may present different hazards. For example, a chemical agent in a solid form may not be hazardous but if ground into a powder or dust it may be hazardous when breathed into the lungs.

A hazardous chemical agent may:

  • Require a Safety Data Sheet and be manufactured or brought directly into the workplace and handled, stored and used e.g. solvents, cleaning agents, glues, resins or paints.
  • Not require a Safety Data Sheet and be manufactured or brought directly into the workplace and handled, stored and used e.g. cosmetics, nail varnish, medicinal products, some medical devices.
  • Be generated by a process or work activity, e.g., fumes from welding or soldering, dust from machining wood, nail dust, flour dust or solvent vapours.
  • Be generated as waste or residue, e.g., carbon monoxide (CO) from a generator or engine.

Where are Hazardous Chemical Agents Found?

Hazardous chemical agents can be found in nearly all work environments such as:

  • Factories
  • Hairdressers
  • Shops
  • Construction sites
  • Farms
  • Hospitals
  • Printing works
  • Dry cleaners
  • Offices
  • Mines, and so on.

Exposure to Hazardous Chemicals

There are four main routes by which a worker can be exposed to a dangerous chemical:

  1. Inhalation - by breathing in air contaminated with the chemical. This is the most common route of exposure.
  2. Absorption - by contact with the skin or eyes. Some chemicals can damage the skin or cause eye irritation on contact or pass through the skin or mucous membranes into the body.
  3. Ingestion - by accidentally swallowing the chemical, for example eating with contaminated hands.
  4. Injection - by injecting the chemical into the bloodstream.   
What Harm can Hazardous Chemical Agents Cause to Workers?

The type of harm will depend on the hazardous chemical agent. Examples of the effects of hazardous chemical agents include:

  • Asthma as a result of exposure to a respiratory sensitiser such as flour dust or soldering flux.
  • Skin irritation or dermatitis as a result of skin contact with a substance such as cement or some degreasing agents.
  • Cancer, which may appear long after the exposure to the chemical that caused it, such as with asbestos or benzene.
  • Loss of consciousness as a result of being overcome by toxic fumes such as solvent vapours.
  • Eye irritation from a splash of caustic or acid which may result in eye irritation or loss of eye sight in severe cases.