The unseen threat
Damien Hirst's 'Formaldehyde Works' have in the headlines recently. It was discovered that they had been releasing potentially dangerous fumes when on display at the Tate Modern in 2012.
Formaldehyde is a preservative and in the case of Mr Hirst's artwork was used as an embalming fluid. However, its primary use is in the production of resins and adhesives and in the treatment of textiles. It is also known to be toxic causing irritation to the eyes, skin and respiratory tract. The exhibits had presented a health risk to the viewing public and more particularly to the gallery's staff who had been working in close proximity to the tanks for a sustained period of time.
The reports are a timely reminder of the dangers that can be presented by hazardous substances in the workplace where there are inadequate controls in place to prevent or control exposure.
Whilst working in an art gallery would not normally be considered a hazardous occupation (!) there are certain sectors of the workforce which are known to be at significant risk of exposure to harmful substances. One such area is Motor Vehicle Repair where the use of isocyanate-containing paints by sprayers is one of the biggest causes of occupational asthma and dermatitis.
According to the Health & Safety Executive (HSE) : 'Vehicle paint sprayers are 90 times more likely to get asthma than the average worker. 1 in 10 of workers in bodyshops who get asthma from isocyanates are not sprayers'.
Under the COSHH Regulations (Control of Substances Harmful to Health) 2002 an employer has a duty not to carry out any work that might expose its employees to a hazardous substance unless he has made a suitable risk assessment. After taking this step an employer must ensure that the exposure is either prevented or adequately controlled. Control involves not only the provision of suitable equipment but also proper training and instruction to ensure it is used correctly.
For example in 2015 the HSE carried out research into the use of Air-fed visors worn by sprayers for protection against exposure to isocyanate paints. It discovered that it was a common practice amongst paint sprayers to flip up the visor immediately after spraying to check the quality of the paint finish. Although this was only for a brief period it could if performed repeatedly over the course of a shift result in a significant increase in exposure.