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Occupational health: the challenge of exposure to chemical agents

05 June 2020
Article by Gabriela Ventura, responsible for INEGIs Indoor Air Quality Laboratory.

Exposure to chemical agents associated with the development of professional activities cannot be avoided. From the inhalation of powders and particles, to dermal contact, there are many risk factors that, even though they cannot be completely avoided, can be mitigated.

However, it is the obligation of companies to protect the health of their workers by minimizing exposure to dangerous substances. Protection that can take many forms, either through the use of personal protective equipment (PPE), through localized air extraction, or through the management of the time of exposure to a certain substance.

Exposure assessment contributes to risk management

Portuguese legislation defines exposure limit values ​​(VLE) that correspond to the concentration of chemical agents to which it is considered that practically all workers can be exposed, day after day, without adverse health effects. These values ​​can be found, for example, in Decree-Law 42/2018 or in Portuguese Standard NP 1796-2014.

The exposure limit values ​​are established for use in the practice of Occupational Hygiene and constitute guidelines or recommendations to support the activities of appreciation of risks to health. However, they should not be used as a dividing line between safe and unsafe situations.

Understanding the risks associated with these substances is a first step in identifying the necessary actions to prevent and reduce the adverse impacts of these pollutants on health. Among the health consequences, referred to in NP 1796-2014 and associated with abusive exposure to certain substances, is eye irritation, skin sensitization, dizziness, nausea, headache, respiratory tract irritation, eye damage, liver and kidney damage, affection central nervous system, pulmonary edema, cancers, among many others.

In order to help companies protect workers, INEGIs Indoor Air Quality Laboratory also works in this field, by determining the concentration of dozens of volatile and VOCs (COMVs) and low molecular weight aldehydes (formaldehyde) , acetaldehyde, acetone, among others) in air samples collected by companies in the Occupational Hygiene and Health area.

Analysis of the risk of occupational exposure to chemical agents includes determining the concentration of these agents in the air of the workplace. This concentration, when representative of the professional exposure under study, is compared with the referred limit values, thus identifying dangerous situations.

Since the health of thousands of people depends on this risk management activity, the laboratory uses reference methods for these tests, namely ISO 16000-6 for analysis of VOCs by GC / MS preceded by thermal extraction and ISO 16000- 3 for analysis of aldehydes by HPLC.
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