Do you know what to do if you have breathed in harmful fumes? If you manage a company or work in an environment where toxic fumes are a risk, it’s important to understand how to stay safe.
Every employer must protect employees from exposure to all hazardous substances such as chemicals, fumes, dust, vapours, mists, gases, biological agents, nanotechnology and germs that can cause diseases.
The health consequences of breathing in harmful fumes can be serious and even fatal, so taking immediate action can save the person’s life.
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What actions should you take if you inhale toxic fumes?
If you’re in the workplace, go outside into fresh air immediately and loosen tight clothing to aid breathing. Make sure colleagues know what has happened, so someone can help in the event of your collapse.
If you’re several floors up, or you can’t make it outside quickly, open the doors and windows and breathe in fresh air. This is important in the event of the accidental release of toxic gases indoors.
For example, certain cleaning products containing chemicals can produce toxic gases if mixed together. Get into fresh air immediately if this happens and open the windows wide to clear the fumes from the premises as quickly as possible – if this is not done, there’s a risk it could become a serious mass incident, with multiple employees affected.
If a colleague has inhaled toxic fumes and they have collapsed, dial 999 immediately, request an ambulance and tell the operator what has happened. If the person starts to vomit, prevent choking by turning their head to one side. It may be necessary for a first aider to start resuscitation.
If toxic gas is involved, it’s important to get the victim out of the affected area before administering first aid. Otherwise, more members of staff may be affected by the fumes as they try to help.
What are the short-term health effects of harmful fumes?
In the short-term, as soon as you breathe in harmful fumes, such as those produced by toxic substances or chemicals, it can cause serious irritation to the airways, including swelling in the nose and throat. This can make breathing difficult, hence the importance of calling an ambulance immediately. The fumes can also irritate the eyes and skin, while the throat can continue to swell to the point of closing up altogether.
Taking immediate action could save someone’s life if their throat and airwaves are becoming blocked. Other potential short-term health effects can include nausea, vomiting and a headache.
Can harmful substances cause long-term damage?
Chemicals can cause long-term, serious damage to your health if inhaled. The symptoms will vary, depending on the type of fumes that were breathed in and the level of exposure to the substance, including the duration and concentration.
Other lasting symptoms can include poisoning, which may require a hospital stay. In the worst-case scenario, inhaling hazardous fumes can damage the nervous system, lungs, liver and kidneys.
Statistics from the Health and Safety Executive have revealed the largest number of work-related deaths are as a result of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or cancers caused by prolonged exposure to harmful chemicals.
What laws govern harmful fumes in the workplace?
Exposure risks must be carefully managed in the workplace, in line with the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations 2002 – known as COSHH. The Health and Safety Executive is responsible for ensuring compliance.
Businesses must carry out a risk assessment to identify potentially hazardous substances and make sure they are properly labelled. This includes any products that give off dust, spray, mist, splashes, gas, fumes or smoke.
The risk assessment must identify how many employees are coming into contact with harmful substances by touching them, breathing in fumes or possible ingestion.
When hazardous substances are identified, the COSHH regulations may require a more specific and detailed assessment of the risks posed to workers who come into direct contact with them. The business must identify the appropriate measures to protect workers and minimise the risks.
How can businesses protect employees?
Effective fume extraction systems have become a crucial part of businesses’ COSHH compliance. Modern workplace solutions to minimise the health risks of gases, solvents and smoke include downdraught benches and cross-draught systems and booths.
Downdraught benches will capture fumes from solvents or solder using filters to suit each individual application.
Cross-draught systems and booths extract and filter fumes through a wall, while a full booth, with optional VB system, offers a fully extracted space where an operator can work without the risk of contamination.
The HSE can impose harsh penalties on companies that fail to comply with COSHH regulations. If an employer breaches the law and endangers lives, it is a crime that can be punished by an unlimited fine or imprisonment.
The HSE can also impose various types of enforcement action on an errant business, while employees whose health is affected may launch a civil claim for compensation against their employer.