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January 3, 2013

Language Barriers Can Cue Workplace Disasters

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Chlorine Gas

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On June 27, 2011, a worker at a poultry processing plant in Arkansas inadvertently created and released chlorine gas into the plant when he poured sodium hypochlorite into a container with residual acidic antimicrobial solution. The plant was evacuated, and more than 350 employees required medical treatment. Five were admitted to intensive-care units, and three developed reactive airways dysfunction syndrome (RADS), an irritant-induced form of asthma that can persist for life.

How could this happen? The worker who mixed the solutions knew such a mixture was dangerous but did not recognize the drum and could not read the label to ascertain its contents. The drum was labeled in English, but the worker could read only Spanish. This incident underscores the danger posed by chlorine gas and the importance of employers providing adequate training and communication of health and safety precautions to employees. Multi-lingual safety labels could have prevented this incident.

OSHA issued the owner of the poultry plant a citation for not ensuring that chemical hazard communication training was understood by all employees. The OSHA Hazard Communication Standard states, "Employers shall provide employees with effective information and training on hazardous chemicals in their work area at the time of their initial assignment, and whenever a new physical or health hazard the employees have not previously been trained about is introduced into their work area." Under the standard, employers are expected to communicate work instructions and information on workplace hazards to employees tailored to the employees' language and education level.

After an investigation, NIOSH recommended:

  1. Providing material safety data sheets and labeling in the languages spoken at the facility
  2. Ensuring that employee training programs regarding hazardous chemicals used on-site and needed protective measures comply with upcoming changes in the OSHA Hazard Communication Standard
  3. Installing special fittings to prevent inadvertent connections between the filling station and containers
  4. Keeping incompatible chemicals in different sized or different colored barrels to prevent them from being mixed together, and
  5. Establishing evacuation plans and drills appropriate for potential hazards at the facility
Read the full incident report here.
Visit the OSHA Hazard Communication page.
Browse GHS Chemical Hazard Labels at
Browse Bilingual Chlorine Gas Safety Signs.

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