Occupational toxicologists assess the hazards and risks to health posed by chemicals encountered in the workplace.
Many of the chemicals that occupational toxicologists must deal with don’t cause an appreciable risk to health when they are present at low levels in food, consumer products and the environment. However, workers may be exposed to these chemicals at considerably higher levels than the general public, so the consequences of human exposure are potentially the most serious in the workplace. Occupational toxicology is not only important in chemical factories, but is just as relevant in places such as high-street bakeries handling flour dust, or hairdressers using hair dyes. They also advise government on legal controls necessary to ensure that chemicals are handled and used safely.
Occupational toxicologists must understand the potential toxicity (hazard) posed by a particular substance. They must then assess the risks to human health in specific occupational settings, taking into account the level, duration and route of exposure, and any other factors that influence the way that workers handle the substance.
Having prepared a risk assessment, occupational toxicologists can advise on suitable working conditions and equipment needed to protect the workers exposed to the substance. They can also offer advice on how the substance should be safely handled and stored. It may be necessary to work with occupational hygienists and physicians to draw up rules that govern the use of chemicals, and to communicate this advice to management and employees.
In the unfortunate event of an accident involving a chemical at work, occupational toxicologists may be asked to advise on how to treat any workers that have been accidentally exposed to the chemical, or what action should be taken if a chemical is accidentally released into the environment.
Workplaces are complex environments where many chemicals may be in use at the same time, so it is important that occupational toxicologists understand and can recognise the potential dangers of simultaneous exposure to more than one type of chemical.
The risk assessments provided by occupational toxicologists are crucial for avoiding ill health linked to work.