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Toxic exposure at work: what you should know

One or more workers in an Iowa factory begin to complain of dizziness, abdominal pain and difficulty breathing. The onset seems sudden and unexplainable. A supervisor starts to wonder whether the virus his kids had last week has come to his workplace. He sends the workers to the on-call nurse's office just before noticing a faint hint of chemicals in the air.

Chemical exposure, according to specialists at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics, can cause all of the above symptoms and more. Vomiting, headaches, hives and seizures can also come from toxic exposure.

UIHC describes the  protocol workers should follow when they suspect chemicals to be the culprit in a colleague's sudden sickness. If the exposure involves a visible burn, flushing the area with cool running water should be a first response, a process to continue for at least 15 minutes.

If the burn is minor, UIHC suggests it may heal on its own once the flushing process has washed the chemical away. A sterile cloth can help protect it while it heals.

When burns are 2nd or 3rd degree, however, UIHC says the best response is to get professional medical help immediately, monitor the victim carefully and watch out for the above symptoms attentively. If they appear, they may signal full-body reactions to the toxic exposure.

In situations where chemicals have had contact with the eyes, UIHC explains that flushing them immediately with running water and calling for medical help are the right responses. Also, in cases where a worker has lost consciousness, begun having difficulty breathing or experienced a seizure, professional medical attention is not optional. UIHC says to call for help right away.  

Knowing when to call 911 is especially important, but is there anything workers can do to protect themselves from exposure in the first place? FindLaw indicates awareness is one of the best preventions. Knowing what toxins may be present in your workplace and where their sources are can help you protect yourself from exposure.

Employers use Material Safety Data Sheets to notify employees of hazardous chemicals in the workspace. FindLaw suggests asking to see the MSDSs for any chemicals in your area of responsibility and familiarizing yourself with specific protocols for those toxins.

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