Your company’s biggest concern this year might not be new customers. It might be air quality and safety for your employees. Poor ventilation, chemicals, fumes, and gases pose a serious health and liability risk. Here’s what to do about it.

Dangerous Gases

A portable gas detector can measure the amount and concentration of toxic gases in an area. These devices are one of the most important parts of an employee’s personal protective equipment (PPE).

Dangerous gases can be simple or chemical asphyxiants, which means they reduce the oxygen level in the body to dangerous levels.

This can lead to trouble breathing or even death.

Simple asphyxiants include nitrogen, methane, hydrogen, and helium. Chemical ones include carbon monoxide, hydrogen cyanide, and hydrogen sulfide.

Dangerous Fumes

Some fumes are poisonous and contain fine airborne particles that are formed when solids evaporate.

Metal fumes, for example, are emitted during welding and smelting processes and contain fine particles of the metal being used. The hazard for fumes varies depending on the substance. For example, welding fumes may be hazardous, but this depends on the welding method, the metal being used, and the ventilation in the room.

Galvanized metal welding can cause severe symptoms of toxicity quickly.


Vapors are the gaseous form of a substance that is normally liquid at room temperature or pressure.

Benzene, methyl alcohol, mercury, and toluene are all substances that can be vaporized. When this happens, they enter the body and can become toxic very quickly. Airborne hazards often are mixtures of all three types of hazards – fumes, gases, and vapors.

Employee protection, therefore, must consist of local and system-wide ventilation, respirators, and personal protective equipment.


Chemical hazards, and other toxic substances, are a special challenge for some businesses. If your company relies on various chemicals for normal business operations, you must know about the wide range of health hazards like irritation, carcinogenicity, and sensitization.

OSHA’s Hazard Communication Standard helps employers and employees identify and understand information about chemical and toxic substances in the workplace.

It also outlines protective measures.

Chemical manufacturers and importers are required to evaluate hazards of chemicals they produce and prepare labels and safety data sheets to explain the hazards to downstream customers or other users.

Employers that use hazardous chemicals in the workplace must have labels and safety data sheets available for exposed workers. Employers also need to train employees on how to handle the chemicals appropriately as well as safety precautions to protect themselves.

Employers are also required to identify and evaluate respiratory hazards in the workplace.

Limits Of Exposure

OSHA sets permissible exposure limits (PELs) to various chemicals, vapors, mists, and other hazardous materials and enforces the limit, to protect workers against health effects of hazardous substances. A PEL in general industry will typically be found in the 1910.1000 Air Contaminants manual. OSHA’s PELs for Shipyard Employment are in the 1915.1000 Toxic and Hazardous Substances manual. And, OSHA’s PELs for construction are in 1926.1000 Gases, Vapors, Fumes, Dusts, and Mists manual.

Unfortunately, most of the PELs are outdated and many substances don’t have PELs.

Fortunately, ACGIH® publishes Threshold Limit Values and Biological Exposure Indices. ACGIH® is a non-governmental, non-profit corporation. It doesn’t set standards. Instead, it is a scientific association that develops recommendations and guidelines for businesses to help them assess and control occupational health hazards.

Threshold Limit Values are airborne concentrations of chemicals and represent conditions which are believed to be those experienced by workers or conditions under which workers may be repeatedly or consistently exposed to the substance every day for a lifetime without adverse effects.

Biological Exposure Indices represent guidance values for employees. Specifically, it is a way to monitor results from tests which assess concentrations of chemicals in employees’ test results collected from workers who have been exposed to chemicals in the same way as workers with inhalation exposure at the Threshold Limit Values.

These are not legal limits or guidelines because the ACGIH® does not take into account economic or technical feasibility of enforcement.

Ventilation and PPE

Proper ventilation is required when workers are exposed to toxic substances for which ventilation will remove or minimize the hazard. Often, ventilation is done in addition to wearing protective equipment.

However, the first physical barrier and line of defense is personal protective equipment. PPEs are important because they filter out toxins from the air, protect the employee’s skin from exposure, and minimize, or eliminate the internal exposure from hazardous materials.