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Chemical safety lessons from the experts

By Stefan Dubowski

Safety-minded organizations have new lessons to teach companies about protecting employees’ eyes and skin from chemical burns. One novel product that promises faster, more effective chemical neutralization; aprogram to help companies spread the word about eye safety; and a guide for small and mid-sized businesses for correct chemical handling.

Here’s a scenario many health and safety professionals work every day to avoid: In the late 1990s, an employee at an unspecified business suffered burns to his face and eyes when a forklift battery exploded as he was checking the acid levels.

The worker was inspecting the battery while it was being charged, but the charger wasn’t connected properly. So when a co-worker engaged the forklift’s ignition, the battery exploded, splashing the employee in the face and eyes with acid. He was not wearing a face mask or protective goggles.

WorkSafeBC says lessons learned from this incident include the importance of proper battery-charging practices (attach the charger’s negative clip to the vehicle’s engine or chassis) and the need for proper personal protective equipment (a non-rigid hood designed for splash protection and an eyewash station, for example).

Today, some 14 years after the forklift incident, safety-minded organizations have new lessons to teach companies about protecting employees’ eyes and skin from chemical burns. One novel product promises faster, more effective chemical neutralization. A program out of the United States aims to help companies spread the word about eye safety among employees. And a guide for small and mid-sized businesses provides advice for correct chemical handling.

Water substitute

Among the various substances commonly used to wash chemicals from skin and eyes, water may be the one most often mentioned in safety manuals. But according to David Wootten, national account manager at safety supply company Levitt-Safety, water isn’t always the best idea.

While it does help wash the chemical from the surface of the skin, water also has an “osmotic” effect that can carry a chemical deeper into the skin, causing even more harm.

One product that’s being pushed in the market as an alternative to water is Diphoterine — a solution, developed by France-based laboratory Prevor, that washes away and neutralizes chemicals.

Diphoterine may be new in Canada, but not in other parts of the world. Wootten says it has been available in Europe for about 10 years. Health Canada, however, only approved its use as a skin spray a couple of years ago, and just licensed it for eye washing this year.

Customers have described Diphoterine as a significant improvement over water and other competing products designed to neutralize chemical burns, Wootten says. Diphoterine works on both the skin and eyes, while other products are only meant for one or the other. The solution also works on acids and bases, while other neutralizers don’t address both.

Diphoterine works quickly, in part because it’s designed to help flush chemicals out of the skin. The product “helps preserve tissue cells, reducing the extent of the injury, in some cases eliminating it, and ultimately reducing lost-time days for organizations,” Wootten says.

Despite Diphoterine’s effectiveness, however, Canadian companies have been slow to embrace it. This reluctance might have to do with the fact many organizations have already invested heavily in existing chemical management systems, and are not willing to spend any further.

The cost of Diphoterine may not be helping to increase its popularity, either. A case of six 200-ml bottles costs about $500. Still, its proponents insist, considering the costs associated with serious eye or skin injury, it’s practically a bargain.

Wootten points out large global companies have been the first to use Diphoterine. It’s a different story at the small- and mid-sized company level, where most Canadian businesses sit. Smaller businesses are just beginning to learn about the product and how they might use it.

Seeing Eye2Eye

Innovative products such as Diphoterine are all well and good, but according to Prevent Blindness America (PBA) companies and employees need to be better educated about eye protection in general. PBA has a new tool to get the word out.

Developed in partnership with protective eyewear maker Uvex, the Eye2Eye program ( offers online courses and a web forum where people can ask questions and swap best practices about eye safety in the workplace.

“We want it to be a living and breathing, constantly updated program that works for everybody,” says PBA spokesperson Sarah Hecker.

Participants become “safety ambassadors” when they complete the courses, and they help bridge the gap between employees and company safety systems. 

PBA is based in the U.S., but Canadians are welcome to join the Eye2Eye initiative.

Eye safety is extremely important — and too often ignored, Hecker says. If an employee suffers an eye injury causing blindness, how would it affect his or her livelihood? How would the worker get to work or perform the tasks at work?

“We take these things for granted every day,” Hecker says. “Usually an eye injury isn’t something like a disease you can die from, but it is still very serious.”

Chemical safety guide

PBA isn’t the only organization concerned about a lack of safety knowledge among companies. The Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS) minds this issue as well. According to Jan Chappel, CCOHS’s senior technical specialist, many businesses use chemicals, but they may not appreciate the importance of carefully handling the material.

She points out companies in practically every industry use chemicals. Hairstylists employ colouring agents. Mechanics use solvents and accelerants. Shoe-repair workers use heavy-duty adhesives.

“If companies don’t know how to use chemicals safely, there could be health issues, fires and explosions,” Chappel says.

CCOHS recently published a new manual to help small companies learn about chemical safety. With step-by-step guidance for controlling and working with chemicals, Implementing a Chemical Safety Program, details the fundamentals of inventory, purchasing and hazard identification, including chemical classification systems. Storage, handling and emergency preparedness are explored as well.

The guide prescribes the use of PPE for protecting against chemical splashes on the face and eyes, but Chappel says protective equipment is only the second step in a comprehensive chemical-management system.

Step one is straightforward: “If you don’t need to use the product at all, eliminate that. That’s the best way to reduce splash.”

Consider substitutions, she says. Is there another product that does the same job but is less harmful?

Chemical splashes certainly aren’t the only concern. Many chemicals are not in liquid form, yet they can still damage skin and eyes. Sodium hydroxide comes in pellets, flakes, beads, chips, sticks, lumps, granules, solid cakes, as well as a clear liquid. If something like that, in solid form, gets on your face, it can react with the moisture on your skin and cause a burn.

With CCOHS’s new guide and PBA’s Eye2Eye program, companies have fresh resources that could help prevent eye and skin injury. As businesses investigate better ways of mitigating the harmful effects of chemical splashes, Diphoterine may soon get traction in the marketplace.


Stefan Dubowski is a freelance writer in Ottawa. You may reach him at

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