Hesperian Health Guides

Learn about chemicals used in your factory

Many workers do not know what chemicals they work with. You might receive chemical containers without labels or know a chemical by what it does ("glass cleaner") or by a name given to it ("yellow stinky"), not its real name.

2 men speaking to a boss while a 3rd man holds a can labeled "Solvent."
We won’t use chemicals without knowing how they can harm our health.
You need to make sure we are protected, and give us training and tools to use them safely.

You have a right to know what chemicals you work with. By learning more about the chemicals, you can seek medical or professional help, you can organize for safe chemicals with your coworkers, and together you can work with your employer to reduce exposures and eliminate toxic chemicals from production.

Talk to other workers

Ask workers what they know or can find out about the chemicals in the workplace. Collect all the chemical names: brand names, generic names, and even nicknames. Write down any characteristics that can help identify the chemical, such as how and where it is used, its color, smell, and any instructions the employer gave about how to handle the chemical ("Always put the chemical into water, not the other way around!"). Talk with the workers in the shipping and receiving areas, and the people who inventory, store, mix, and dispose of the chemicals and their containers. They often know the names of the chemicals, or can find out.

Write down any health problems you or others feel while working with or transporting the chemicals. Ask: Do you feel ill at work or after work? Are some work areas better or worse than others? Do you feel better when you are away from work for a few days?

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Show others how to keep a health notebook and how to look for patterns: Do you get sick more often when you work in certain areas? When you work with certain chemicals? Immediately, or after you leave work?
a woman speaking while holding a can labeled "Degreaser."
Just as we begin to understand how to use a chemical safely, the employer changes it to something we don’t know anything about!

What chemical is it?

If you know the name of the chemical, you can usually find out about its health effects by looking up information about it. But if you don’t know its name, you may be able to find out what it is by its color, smell, what it is used for, and other qualities. For help in doing this and to understand the dangers of specific chemicals, see the Appendix B: Common chemicals and materials.


Contains: Isopropyl alcohol . . . . 70%

Inert: Water. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 30%

Highly flammable liquid and vapor. Splashes will cause serious eye irritation. May cause drowsiness or dizziness if inhaled.

Precautions during use: Keep away from heat, sparks, and open flames. No smoking. Keep container tightly closed. Avoid breathing in vapors. Use in a well-ventilated area. Wear eye protection.

First aid: If inhaled: Remove person to fresh air and keep comfortable for breathing. Call a doctor if you feel unwell. Eyes: Rinse cautiously with water for several minutes. Remove contact lenses if it is possible. Continue rinsing. If eye irritation continues, see a doctor.

Emergency: In case of fire, use water spray, alcohol resistant foam, dry chemical or carbon dioxide to put it out.

Manufactured by: Greedist Chemicals Co. 111 Only Drive, Onlyville, Iowa, 11111 USA.

CAS #67-63-0

But the truth is that nobody knows how dangerous many chemicals are because not many chemicals have been studied fully for their effects on people. It takes a long time to do scientific research and even more to make laws to protect people. And to make it even more complicated, it is even more unusual for scientists to study how a mix of chemicals affects peoples’ health. And how often do you use only one chemical? That is why it is important for companies to use only chemicals that are already proven to be safe.

Read the label

Every chemical container should have a label on it, written in a language people in your factory can understand. If the containers you are working with do not have labels, ask the supervisor to provide you with this information. You can also ask the shipping department workers if they could share with you the information on the label of the larger container the chemical came from, or you can try to find out more information yourself. In some countries, these labels are required by law to provide information in many languages.

Get the Safety Data Sheet (SDS)

Companies that make chemical products publish an information sheet for each product they make. These used to be called Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) but are now called Safety Data Sheets (SDS).

a woman speaking
We form groups and each group reads one section. We ask each other when we don’t understand a term or a number. Then we go through the whole thing together.

An SDS is often long and difficult to understand. Though each sheet must use the same categories, the content in the SDS for different companies’ sheets may be very different, even for the same chemical. To get more information, read several SDS from different manufacturers of the same chemical.

How to Get and read an SDS

The factory administration should have an SDS for every chemical used in the factory. Your boss should make copies of these SDS available to you and other workers in your language (see The right to know about chemicals).

While you organize to make your boss provide you up-to-date SDS, you can try to get them in other ways:

  • Ask the workers who receive, sign for, and store the chemical containers if they have the SDS and could get you a copy.
  • Find the name and contact information for the company that produces the chemical from the label on the container and request they send you an SDS in your language.
  • Ask staff in unions, worker centers, environmental organizations, or universities for help in finding the SDS or chemical information.
  • Research the chemical on the Internet. Search by the name and the CAS number. Look on websites of the companies that produce the chemicals as well as sites that provide SDS from many sources. Compare the different SDS, they might have different information!

In Appendix B you will find links to websites where you can find more information about chemicals. But many of the websites with chemical information are as hard to read as SDS themselves!

a sample safety data sheet.

1. Product name and company that makes it:
Isopropyl Alcohol
Other names: 2-propanol
Isopropanol, IPA
Poy Son Yu, Inc.
P.O Box 555
Colinas Sucias, CA, USA
(900) 800-0008
Even secret trade mixes need to list the chemical ingredients (components) that are toxic.
This is a summary of the chemical’s health and fire dangers. More information will be in Sections 4, 5, and 11. If health effects are not mentioned, it does not mean the chemical is safe.
What to do and use to contain and clean-up a spill. See section 8 for information about protective and cleanup equipment.
Prevent factory fires and accidents with safe handling and storage of chemicals. Find more information in section 10.
2. Composition or information on ingredients
Isopropyl Alcohol     100%                                 CAS # 67-63-0
Component information: This product is considered to be hazardous according to CFR 1910.1200.
Chemicals may have many different names but have only one CAS number. The CAS number is the best way to identify a chemical.
3. Hazard identification
This product is a clear, volatile, flammable liquid. Highly flammable.
Acute effects: Irritation of the skin and/or upper respiratory tract,
drowsiness, headache.
Chronic effects: Slightly hazardous in case of skin contact (sensitizer).Carcinogenic effects: A4 (Not classifiable for human or
animal.) by ACGIH, 3 (Not classifiable for human) by IARC.
Inhalation: Mild irritation of eyes, nose, and throat.
Ingestion: Drowsiness, headache.
Dermal Contact: Dry, cracking skin.
4. First aid measures
Eyes: Flush with water, for at least 15 minutes.
    Seek medical attention.
Skin: Wash with soap and water. Take off contaminated clothing and
shoes. Obtain medical attention.
Inhalation: Remove victim to fresh air. Give oxygen if breathing is difficult.
    Seek medical attention.
Ingestion: Do not vomit. Seek medical attention.
For skin, see if flushing with water is enough or if another treatment is recommended. For ingestion, see if vomiting is recommended or not.
5. Fire fighting measures
Flammability of the product: Flammable.
Flash point: 12 °C (53.6 °F)
Auto ignition temperature: 339 °C (750 °F)
Fire Hazard: Highly flammable when there is a spark or heat.
Explosion hazards: Explosive when there is a spark or heat.
Fire Fighting Instructions: Water may be ineffective. Do not use a solid
    water stream because it may spread the fire. Cool containers exposed
    to fire or heat with water.
SMALL FIRE: Use DRY chemical powder.
LARGE FIRE: Use alcohol-resistant foam, carbon dioxide,
     water spray, or fog.
See if the chemical is flammable and what can make it burn or explode. Following these instructions can prevent factory fires.
See what material or chemicals will put out a fire. If you do not have the right supplies, you will not be able to stop the fire.
6. Accidental release measures
Small spill: Dilute with water and mop up. Put in disposal container.
Large spill: Keep away from heat and sparks. Use dry earth or sand to absorb it.
7. Handling and storage
Precautions: Keep away from heat. Keep away from oxidizing agents and acids.
    Ensure all equipment is electrically grounded.
Storage Recommendations: Keep in a cool area with good ventilation. Keep in
    a segregated area. Store in tightly closed containers.

a sample safety data sheet.

8. Exposure controls and personal protection
Engineering Controls: Use explosion-proof ventilation equipment.
Provide local and general exhaust ventilation to remove vapors and
mists. Ground containers to prevent static sparks. Ensure eyewash
stations and safety showers are proximal to work-stations.
Personal protective equipment:
Skin: Wear impervious gloves
    and flame retardant antistatic protective clothing.
    Eye: Wear safety glasses with side-shields. For leak, spill, or other
    emergency, use chemical goggles and face-shield.
    Respiratory: NIOSH approved respiratory protection when levels are high.
Personal protective equipment for cleaning large spills: Splash goggles.
    Full suit. Vapor respirator. Boots. Gloves.
Exposure limits: OSHA PEL= 400 ppm OSHA STEL = 500 ppm IDLH-
                 2,000 ppm TWA: 983 STEL: 1230 (mg/m3) [Australia] TWA: 200
                    STEL: 400 (ppm) from ACGIH (TLV) [United States] [1999]
See what ventilation is needed: local, general, enclosed.
These levels, measured in parts per million with expensive equipment, may not be safe enough to protect you, but they are a starting point to fight for at least those levels.
Chemicals and conditions to avoid to prevent dangerous reactions.
Look for information on what organs the chemical affects.
How and how long the chemical harms the environment.
How to dispose of the chemical safely.
Get an updated SDS.
9. Physical and chemical properties
  Physical state and appearance: Liquid.
    Odor: Pleasant. Odor resembling that of a mixture of ethanol and acetone.
  Taste: Bitter (slightly).
    Color. Colorless.
  Odor Threshold: 22 ppm (Sittig, 1991) 700 ppm for unadapted panelists
    (Versch, 1983)
See what kind of gloves, eye protection, clothing, and masks you should use every day and for accidents.
10. Stability and reactivity
  Stability: The product is stable.
  Conditions to avoids: Heat, ignition sources, incompatible materials
  Incompatibilities: Reacts violently with hydrogen + palladium
  combination, nitroform, oleum, COCl2, aluminum triisopropoxide, oxidant
11. Toxicology information
LD50 – Route: Inhalation; Dose: 72.6 mg/L/4H
LD50 – Route: Oral; Dose: 4396 mg/kg
LD50 – Route: Ingestion; Dose: 12,800 mg/kg
Acute effects: Causes irritation of eyes, skin, and mucous membranes.
    Harmful by inhalation, if swallowed. Causes headaches and other effect to
    nervous system.
Chronic effects: Repeated exposure may cause damage to the bladder,
    kidneys and liver.
CARCINOGENIC EFFECTS: A4 (Not classifiable for human or animal) by     ACGIH, 3 (not classifiable for human) by IARC.
REPRODUCTIVE TOXICTY: May cause adverse reproductive/teratogenic
    effects (fertility, fetoxicity, developmental abnormalities based on animal
    studies. Detected in maternal milk in human.)
DEVELOPMENT TOXICITY: Classified Reproductive system/toxic/female.
This section might help you identify a chemical by describing what it looks, tastes or smells like.
12. Ecological information
Ecotoxicity: Ecotoxicity in water (LC50): 100000 mg/l 96 hours
    [Fathead Minnow]. 64000 mg/l 96 hours [Fathead Minnow].
LD50 means Lethal Dose – how much will kill half of those exposed. The lower the number, the more dangerous it is.
Can it cause cancer?
Reproductive toxicity: affects ability to have healthy children.
Teratogenic: causes birth defects.
Fetoxicity: can damage baby in the womb.
Development toxicity: can affect the baby’s development.
13. Disposal information
Dispose of as special waste in compliance with local and national
    Consider fuels blending as an alternative to incineration.
14. Transportation information
Information about what labels should be included while transporting.
15. Regulatory Information
Date of revision. January 13, 2014. Any other important information.
The right to know about chemicals Wgthas black-ilo.png

The ILO Chemicals Convention (No. 170) supports the protection of workers and the environment from harmful chemicals. It says employers must provide:
Information: The factory owner must provide information and the chemical data sheets for all the chemicals used in the factory to anybody that requests them. Workers have the right to request that information from the boss.

Protection: The factory owner is responsible for the safety of workers in the factory and must monitor chemical levels to make sure they are within the law. The owner should also provide workers with safety clothing and equipment at no charge and replace any that is no longer safe.

Safe disposal: The factory owner is responsible for safely disposing of all dangerous chemicals and containers.

Training: Factory workers must be trained in how to handle and dispose of chemicals and what to do in emergencies.

First aid and emergency care: Any factory that uses chemicals needs to have emergency showers and rinses in the areas where the chemicals are used. All workers and supervisors should know what to do in case of emergency.

If you fear you or others are at immediate and serious risk to your safety or health, you have the right to leave the area. You should inform your supervisor. This convention protects workers who do this from being punished.

The ILO Occupational Cancer Convention (No. 139) states governments must:

  • Replace cancer-causing chemicals with non-carcinogenic chemicals.
  • Prevent workers from being exposed to chemicals known to cause cancer.
  • Inform workers of the dangers of cancer-causing chemicals and how to protect against them.

The roles of the UN, ILO, and other international organizations that promote workers’ rights are explained in Appendix A.

Community resources

Labor unions, women’s groups, and environmental organizations may be able to help you get information. If you know the name of a chemical, you can find information in libraries and on the Internet. But even if you do not know the name, you can sometimes find out the name with other information, such as use, color, smell, and so forth. Any information can be helpful.

We demand to know what chemicals
are being used in the factory

In the early 1980s, a group of workers, environmental activists, and community members in New Jersey, USA got together to demand that the government pass the "Right to Know" law. This law would give workers the right to know what chemicals were used in their workplaces.

Workers and their unions had long demanded that employers tell them exactly what chemicals they worked with. But employers fought back, with the law on their side. Even after workers got rashes or had trouble breathing, employers didn’t have to tell workers what was in the mixes. They said, "If we tell workers or health inspectors, our 'trade secrets' will be known and we won’t be able to compete." They would rather let workers die than disclose those chemicals.

Although workers were at the front line of chemical exposures, they were not the only ones getting sick from chemicals they knew nothing about. Pollution of air and water, burial of toxic waste in the community, and accidental toxic releases and fires were exposing people in New Jersey to all kinds of chemicals. And they were getting angry, too!

Connecting workers inside the factory with people outside was a very successful strategy. It brought together activists from different sectors: mothers, politicians, environmentalists, and union members, all under one single banner: We have the Right to Know!

Environmental crises pushed even more people to support and organize for a new law. In 1983, the Right to Know bill was passed.

a man speaking.
We didn’t think we could do much to change anything in the workplace. It was like, you take a job and you know there are some really toxic chemicals, but you have no power to change that. Take it or leave it. It never occurred to us that people outside the factory could cause a dramatic change in policy inside the workplace.

The Right to Know law was a big advance, but it has not protected workers and the community enough from chemical exposures. While industry attacks the law, people continue to organize for public disclosure and safe handling of chemicals used at work, for safe disposal of chemicals, and for policies to stop accidents from happening and training to handle them when they do.

This page was updated:28 Feb 2021