Acute inhalation injuries caused by chemical agents: who is at risk? How to protect oneself?


Acute inhalation injuries caused by chemical irritants are one of the hazards to which workers in certain sectors, particularly the industrial one, but not only, are more exposed. In fact, these injuries are caused by harmful air borne chemical particles which are easily introduced into the lungs by the simple act of breathing.

Inhalation injuries: which jobs are at risk?

Acute inhalation injuries caused by chemical agents are one of the risks to which workers in certain sectors and in the industrial sector in particular, are more exposed. In fact, inhalation injuries usually occur following exposure to airborne chemical particles and particulate matter, which can be easily introduced into the body simply through inhalation.

Solvents, organic acids, spores and toxins, heavy metals, fumes, pyrolysis of plastic materials are just some of the compounds that, if inhaled, can lead to acute injuries to the body. The damage caused can be multiple, from simple irritations to burns and, depending on the severity these injuries, to the death of the exposed person.

From the type of chemical agents found in the workplace, the jobs where workers are mostly at risk of inhalation injuries, are easily identifiable.

Firstly, workers in the chemical and pharmaceutical sectors involved with synthesis and production processes are amongst the most exposed. In these sectors, the use of solvents and acids is abundant and an imperceptible error is all that is needed to cause a major health problem. Next, even if to a lesser extent, metalworkers in the industrial field are also often exposed since it is not uncommon to use solvents and highly volatile and dangerous compounds for certain processes in this sector. Then, workers in the carpentry sector are also at risk because strong solvents, which are often also particularly volatile, are used to treat wood systematically.

Workers are exposed to damage caused by the inhalation of chemical substances in the agricultural sector as well. In fact, in modern agriculture, multiple chemicals are added to fertilizers and plant protection products and these can cause significant health issues if inhaled.

Firefighters, moreover, also run very high risks, because heat is one of the main catalysts of certain types of reactions capable of developing highly irritating toxic gases.

When working in environments where it is easy to inhale toxic substances, even mild symptoms should not be underestimated. Itchiness, perception of heat, suffocation, or swelling located in the chest, may be a sign of the development of an acute inhalation injury and a doctor needs to be consulted as soon as possible

How to protect oneself from inhaling toxic substances

Workers in the abovementioned work situations are usually aware of the risks they face and current Health and Safety legislation is quite clear on the subject, i.e.  employers are required to protect their workers from workplace hazards that can cause injury or illness and employees who work in conditions of danger and / or risk are required to wear appropriate Personal Protective Equipment designed to protect against the risk of inhaling chemical agents.

Among the devices currently available for the protection of the respiratory system are powered air purifying respirators equipped with helmets which provide overall protection of the head, face, eyes, ears and respiratory tract against harmful gases.  These respiratory protective devices have battery powered blower unit equipped with filters which provide filtered air to the inside of the facepiece preventing visors misting and ensuring comfort and ease of breathing. Powered air purifying respirators may be equipped with either helmets or face masks, both of which provide the highest safety levels thanks to the slight positive pressure which builds up inside the facepiece. The face masks, in particular, are ergonomic with an internal half-mask and a demisting system which prevents the visor fogging even when working in extreme conditions.

Some types of these latest generation compact respiratory protective devices are run by waist worn batteries which allow mobility, do not cause discomfort, hinder or slow down work. Furthermore, the batteries provided usually have a running time of over 8 hours and cover an entire work shift.