Toxic chemical exposure can be deadly, but safety can be managed

Most of us don’t know exactly what hazards might be lurking in the workplace, especially if we don’t work in an industrial setting. It’s true that manufacturing jobs can be dangerous, as they often involve exposure to chemicals, high-powered machinery, gases, oily floors and extreme noise and heat. If you’ve read the New York Times recently, however, you may know that hazardous chemicals like toluene and formaldehyde are present in dangerous levels in a wide variety of industries, including nail salons.

Whether you work in a salon, restaurant, hospital, construction site or factory, you could be exposed to toxic chemicals in your workplace. OSHA requires your employer to assess the risk and take all reasonable steps to keep you safe.

The Times revealed that wasn’t happening in many NYC nail salons, but another industry with a toluene-based process is doing a much better job. According to a recent profile in Occupational Health & Safety magazine, the flexible polyurethane foam industry has been successfully protecting their workers at every step in the manufacturing and waste-disposal processes. In fact, although exposure to toluene diisocyanate is known to cause asthma, workers in the flexible polyurethane foam industry have a lower rate of asthma than the general population.

Flexible polyurethane foam, or FPF, comes in a variety of forms and is even more ubiquitous in American society than glamorous fingernails. It’s the foam we use in furniture, mattresses, carpet pads, filters, packing foam, absorbent pads — even shoulder pads in sweaters. Think of any non-organic padded material and it’s almost certainly FPF. In the U.S. alone, we produce more than 1.6 billion pounds of FPF every year.

Once it’s in the marketplace, FPF is not thought to be dangerous because it has been cured. However, the curing process requires toluene diisocyanate which, as we’ve mentioned before, could put workers at risk of occupational asthma. If you get sick, you probably won’t be able to work around toluene diisocyanate anymore — or other chemicals.

The PFF industry’s success in limiting worker exposure was the result of a careful focus on safe handling, use and storage of the chemical, as well as ongoing training programs and medical monitoring of sensitive employees. Sharing knowledge and best practices across the industry was also crucial to the industry-wide effort.

The industry hopes to inspire others to protect their workers better from chemical exposure. Let’s hope they do.

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