Toxins In The Workplace
Originally published: 06.01.08 by Alan W. Davis, M.D., and Pamela H. Davis, M.D.
Protect yourself from on-the-job risks.
Some work environments pose more risks to workers than others. It’s just the nature of certain jobs. The important thing is to know the risks and what to do to safeguard yourself and your employees.
In the hvacr industry, workers can potentially be exposed to several toxins. Awareness of these chemicals and antimicrobials is important for overall job safety and health.
Asbestos is a mineral fiber used mainly as a construction material for insulation and as a fire retardant. It is banned in the U.S., but it still may be found in insulation, shingles, millboard, textured paints, coating materials and floor tiles. Anytime these sources are disturbed the asbestos becomes airborne, and that is where the real danger lies. If high enough concentrations are inhaled, the fibers can cause lung damage, including asbestosis (scarring) and lung cancer. The troubling reality of asbestos exposure is that symptoms may not occur for 20 or 30 years after exposure.
The best way to reduce exposure is to not disturb asbestos-laden products. But many times this is impossible—especially when removing old boilers or furnaces. For your employees’ safety and the safety of those living in the home, make sure your sales staff and technicians are properly trained in identifying asbestos covered pipes and duct work. Special training needs to be given to workers who will be removing asbestos. Also, special permits are required for asbestos removal and disposal.
For more information, visit: www.epa.gov/asbestos/pubs/ashome.html.
Lead and lead compounds are very common exposures in the workplace. Indeed, more than 3 million workers are potentially exposed to lead in the United States. Because of the known dangers, lead is highly regulated by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). Lead in the hvacr workplace can be an issue when welding, painted metal or pipes.
Lead enters your body by breathing in lead dust or fumes or swallowing the dust if it gets on your hands or clothes. Once in your body, lead is there for a long time. Even very small amounts of exposure over time can result in damage to the brain, nerves, kidneys and blood. Damage done may be permanent. The symptoms of lead toxicity are varied but may include irritability, muscle or joint pains, stomach aches, trouble concentrating and cramps and fatigue. As you can see, the symptoms may be relatively non-specific and therefore you must inform your physician of possible exposure to lead so that this can be tested.
You can protect yourself at work by washing your hands and face before you eat or drink, and you should always eat in areas free of lead dust. Ensure appropriate ventilation and avoid stirring up lead dust with dry sweeping or blowing. Wet cleaning and vacuuming are recommended. You should wear separate work clothes and shoes at work and change clothes before you go home. If possible, shower at work and launder your clothes at work. This will decrease your family exposure.
Lead poisoning can be treated, but you must consult an expert for this. All cases must be reported to the local health department as well.
For more information, visit: www.cdc.gov/lead.
Molds are ubiquitous — they are the most common forms of fungi found on the earth. They reproduce via spores, which we breathe in nearly every day to some extent. However, some molds are known to cause health issues.
The hvacr industry certainly knows the importance of keeping customers homes and workplaces free of aerosolized mold spores.
Molds can grow anywhere there is moisture — carpet, ceiling tiles, wallboard, and in hvacr systems.
Exposure to molds can cause allergic reactions, asthma flare ups, inflammation of the lungs, and lung infections. An individual’s reaction to mold spores is not universal — some may have a problem and others may seem unaffected.
While much has been written about black mold and its byproduct mycotoxins, all molds are capable of producing these same toxins. Theoretically, any mold could be considered a “toxic” mold.
For more information, visit the U.S. EPA Web site: www.epa.gov/iaq/molds/moldresources.html.
Legionaire ’s Disease
This is an acute respiratory infection caused by the bacteria Legionella pneumophilia. The bacteria got its name in 1976 after several people suffered from this type of pneumonia after attending a meeting in an American Legion hall in Philadelphia. Yearly, there are between 8,000 to 10,000 people hospitalized with Legionnaires in the U.S.
The bacteria that cause this disease are found naturally in the environment,usually in water. It grows best in warm water, cooling towers, hot water tanks, in plumbing systems and in airconditioning units. People get sick from breathing in the mist or vapor that hasbeen contaminated with the bacteria. It is not spread from person to person.
The bacteria can cause pneumonia with symptoms of high fever, chills and cough or a milder respiratory condition called Pontiac Fever, which produces fever, muscle aches and headache, but no pneumonia. People at the highest risk tend to have other risk factors such as advanced age, history of smoking or alcoholism or immune suppression.
While exposure to toxins may be inevitable, there is every reason you should try to protect yourself and your employees. Make them aware of the risks and let them know you care about their health. They will thank you for it.