Hesperian Health Guides

First aid for chemicals

Despite our best attempts to prevent them, accidents happen in every factory. When they do, serious injuries may still be prevented if employers make sure workers receive regular trainings in first aid and have the materials they need. One or more workers in every area (and for every shift) should be trained to take charge in an accident, to get people out safely, to give first aid, and to get more help if needed. Make someone responsible to check regularly that first aid supplies are fresh and fully stocked, and that equipment, such as showers and eye wash stations, are clean and functional.

First aid when you breathe in a chemical

If a person has difficulty breathing, feels dizzy, confused, or nauseous, or if you see, smell, or feel a chemical release:

  1. Remove the person from the work area or factory so they can get fresh air. Make sure your workplace has a plan about what to do if a worker cannot move or loses consciousness.
  2. Help the person stay calm and comfortable.
  3. Give oxygen from an oxygen tank if the person has inhaled chemicals that:
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    • cause a severe asthma attack, such as isocyanates and some dyes.
    • cause liquid to build up in the lungs (pulmonary edema), such as ammonia and chlorine.
    • reduce oxygen in the air, such as methane and nitrogen.
    • reduce oxygen in the blood, such as carbon monoxide and methylene chloride.
    • make it hard for the body to use oxygen, such as cyanide and hydrogen sulfide.
  4. Take the person to a health worker, even if they feel better.
  5. If the person has stopped breathing, begin rescue breathing (mouth-to-mouth breathing). Make sure your factory holds regular trainings on how to do rescue breathing.
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First aid when a chemical touches your skin or eyes

Every work area where chemicals are used should have an emergency body shower and an emergency eye wash station with enough water to flow for at least 15 minutes. Most important, workers should be trained in first aid for the chemicals they work with.

a man standing under a shower.

For chemicals on the skin:

  1. Wash chemicals off immediately using lots of water for at least 15 minutes. The faster you begin pouring water over the area and the longer you do it, the more you will limit harm.
  2. Chemicals that catch fire or absorb quickly through the skin must be washed for a longer time, 30 minutes to 1 hour.
  3. After washing the chemicals off the skin, take the person to a hospital or clinic even if there are no signs of harm. Bring information about the chemical.
  4. Burns from HF (hydrofluoric acid) must be treated with calcium gluconate.

For chemicals in the eyes:

a woman rinsing her eye at a sink where a sign reads, "Eye Wash."
  1. Stay calm.
  2. Rinse the eye or both eyes immediately. Use lots of water and continue rinsing for at least 15 minutes.
  3. If you have an emergency eye wash, turn it on and use your fingers to hold your lids open as you flush them.
  4. If you have to splash water on your eyes with your hands, hold your eyes open as you splash them. Ask for help keeping them open.
  5. If you are unable to stand, a person can pour water on your eyes. If only one eye is affected, tilt your head so the water runs from the bridge of the nose, over the eye, and towards the ear. Don’t let the water run from one eye to the other. If both eyes were splashed, lie down and tilt your head back, while the person pours water over the bridge of your nose so it runs down both eyes.
  6. See a health worker as soon as you can.
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First aid when chemicals get in the mouth
  1. Help the person stay calm.
  2. Find the chemical label or any information about the chemical. Usually the label will include a first aid section, with instructions about "ingestion." There you will find whether the person should vomit up the chemical or not. It is very important to follow that advice.
  3. The label may list an antidote if the chemical is ingested. If you have that antidote, give it.
  4. Activated charcoal is a common and inexpensive treatment to help someone who has been poisoned. Unless the chemical label or SDS says not to, you can give the person activated charcoal.
  5. Unless the label says not to, you can give a glass of water or milk. But do not give more.
  6. After following the instructions on the label as best you can, quickly take the person to a clinic or hospital. Bring the name, the label, and any information about the chemical with you.
  7. If the person is unconscious, lay her on her side so she does not choke on her vomit. Check her breathing. Quickly get help so she can be taken to a clinic.
a man placing a woman on her side.
Lying on the side keeps the person’s airways open.
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What should be available in your factory
  • A first aid committee and trainings so workers know how to respond to chemical emergencies, including how to give rescue breathing, how to operate emergency showers and eye washes, and how to get workers immediate medical attention.
  • First aid supplies for the chemicals used in your factory, such as oxygen tanks, activated charcoal, and calcium gluconate or other treatments needed for chemical burns.
  • Telephone numbers to quickly bring an ambulance and notify a clinic or hospital and the safety and health authorities in case of an accident.
  • Emergency showers and eye wash stations in all work areas where there are chemicals.
  • Air monitors with alarms to alert when chemical levels are high.
  • Clean water to drink.
  • Personal protective equipment for everyday use as well as in case of accident and for clean-up. There should also be extra clothing and shoes in a variety of sizes in case someone has to completely change their clothing.
a woman lying on her back while water pours onto her face from a jar held by another woman; a 3rd woman speaks while standing near them.
If there is no eye wash, pour clean water from the inside of the eye toward the outside of the eye near the ear.
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This page was updated:28 Feb 2021