Isocyanates are highly reactive compounds that react with alcohol based compounds to create polyurethane polymers. These polymers are found in thermoplastic elastomers, paints and spandex fibers. In other words, isocyanates are compounds which make up most products that are made of polyurethane.
Workers who are exposed to this hazardous substance include those who work with or around:
- Polyurethane foam
- Insulation materials
- Surface coating
- Car seats
- Foam mattresses
- Carpet padding
- Packaging material
- Laminate fabric
Worker who inhale or come in contact with isocyanates can develop health issues. For instance, carbon dioxide that is generated via polyurethane foam production can trigger the release of isocyanates in vapor form which can be inhaled by workers. The vapors affect the respiratory tract leading to inflammation and breathing issues.
Persistent exposure to this hazardous substance (whether it is respiratory or dermal) can sensitize workers. This means that each time they come in contact with isocyanates, they can get severe asthma attacks. With time, the sensitivity can become so severe that death may be imminent.
Workers who are exposed to isocyanates on a regular basis complain of the following health concerns:
- Persistent cough
- Difficulty breathing
- Eye irritation
- Tightness in chest
- Sore or dry throat
- Cold symptoms
Needless to say isocyanates pose a serious health hazard to workers. The good news is the effects can be eliminated with a proper safety and health plan. For instance, installing closed systems and ventilation systems can reduce exposure in the workplace significantly. In addition, isolating workers from the source via personal protective equipment (PPE) such as protective clothing (that can prevent skin exposure) and respiratory protection (that can prevent inhalation) can also help.
Early detection and recognition of sensitization along with quick corrective action can eliminate exposure completely. It can also go a long way in reducing long term respiratory issues for workers who are constantly exposed to the hazardous substance or have become sensitized.
To determine which protective measures can prevent isocyanate exposure, employers should first determine if isocyanates can be replaced with healthier alternatives. If not, the hazardous substance should be prevented from entering other workplace areas through proper ventilation.
In case ventilation is not sufficient to prevent the spread of iIsocyanates in the workplace, Respiratory Protective Equipment (RPE) should be provided. The equipment should be tested and fitted to each worker who is exposed to the hazardous substance to prevent inhalation.
Additionally, workers should be encouraged to practice good personal hygiene. For instance they should be encouraged to store contaminated clothing separately from other work gear. The clothing they discard at the end of the work day should be laundered properly before use. After removing their protective clothing, workers should wash off any product left on their skin quickly before it gets absorbed.
This includes the gloves they use to work. The material should be thick enough to prevent permeation depending on the length and type of work they do. Similarly, workers should be provided eye protective equipment such as face shields or goggles if splashes are imminent.
Plus, workers should also wash their hands before eating, smoking and before signing out at the end of the workday. As an extra precaution, their urine can also be checked to detect isocyanates in the body.
In other words, employers should always assume that isocyanate exposure is imminent and workers should be equipped with protective gear to prevent health issues. A written risk assessment plan that focuses on the main hazards, controls and risks can help. This includes Safety Data Sheets (SDS) and proper product labeling.
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