- Recognize the hazards of formaldehyde.
- Identify how workers can be exposed and the health effects of formaldehyde.
- Identify the exposure controls for protecting against formaldehyde hazards.
- Identify how to respond to a formaldehyde spill or release.
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Internationally, over 46 billion pounds of formaldehyde are produced each year. As a medical preservative and sterilizing agent, the stuff is everywhere so the risk of exposure is more prevalent than ever before.
Formaldehyde is one of the most common industrial chemicals in use today. It is classified as a volatile organic compound. It is also an irritant to many workers and a known human carcinogen. Usually, it is found in liquid form.
Formaldehyde has a flashpoint of 185 degrees Fahrenheit, meaning that at this temperature and above, the formaldehyde solution gives off enough vapor to form an ignitable mixture with air to produce a flame in the presence of an ignition source—at that temp it readily catches fire. It can explode even from the spark of an electric switch.
When formaldehyde is mixed with certain chemicals, the results can be very dangerous or even explosive, in some cases. Formaldehyde doesn’t play well with other chemical compounds and should not be mixed with strong oxidizing agents.
According to the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA), “…formaldehyde is a sensitizing agent that can cause a negative immune system response on exposure. It is highly irritating to the eyes, nose, and throat and can make anyone exposed cough and wheeze. Ingestion of formaldehyde can be fatal, and long-term exposure to low levels in the air or on the skin can cause asthma-like respiratory problems and skin irritation such as dermatitis and itching. Concentrations of 100 ppm are immediately dangerous to life and health (IDLH). The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) considers 20 ppm of formaldehyde to be IDLH.”
In work areas where formaldehyde is a hazard, signs must be posted to warn employees of the danger to health and of fire and explosion. Also, all containers of materials containing more that 0.1 percent formaldehyde should be clearly labeled in accordance with the Hazard Communication standard.
In addition to posted signs and labels, other exposure controls may include local exhaust ventilation, general ventilation equipment, air monitoring equipment, and alarms in areas where formaldehyde is commonly used or regularly stored.
Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) is required when working in areas where there is a possibility that formaldehyde may be present in excess of the permissible exposure level. For example, your company may require safety clothing, chemical safety goggles, gloves, and respirators, but whenever working with formaldehyde, this gear should be readily available for those who want to use it.
When working in an area where you might be exposed to formaldehyde, follow these safe work practices to minimize your exposure.
- Read the Safety Data Sheet to learn the hazards of formaldehyde and how to protect against them.
- Have immediate access to, and know how to use, an emergency escape breathing apparatus for use in the event of a spill or release.
- Sound the necessary alarm and immediately report any detectable formaldehyde leaks to your supervisor as called for in your company’s emergency action plan.
- Know and observe your company’s emergency evacuation plan, including alarms.
- Keep upwind of any formaldehyde leaks.
- Follow your company’s procedures for safe removal of formaldehyde contaminated clothing.
If an accidental spill and release occurs, your first action is to evacuate the affected area of all personnel. In the event of a large spill or large release, stay away from contaminated areas. If a large spill or release occurs, sound the alarm, evacuate, and isolate the area.
Clean up small spills, involving less than one gallon, using a non-combustible absorbent material such as earth or dry sand. Once it is absorbed, place the absorbent material in a chemical waste container.
Remember to rinse and repeat for all manner of exposures. If formaldehyde splashes into your eyes, flush them immediately with large amounts of water for 15 to 20 minutes. Lift the lower and upper lid as you flush. Get medical attention immediately. If high concentration formaldehyde solutions get on your skin, immediately flush the contaminated skin with water, and then wash with soap and water. If high concentration formaldehyde solutions penetrate through your clothing, remove the clothing and immediately flush your skin with water.
If a person breathes in large amounts of formaldehyde, move the exposed person to fresh air at once. Keep the affected person warm and at rest. Call 911 or follow your company’s established emergency response procedure to get medical attention as soon as possible.
If formaldehyde is swallowed, give a conscious victim milk, activated charcoal, or water to drink. The person should be kept warm and at rest. Keep the head of the victim lower than the hips if vomiting should occur. Get medical attention as soon as possible.
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