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  • If the packaging of a chemical has a pictogram with a hazard symbol, it is a hazardous chemical.
  • The chemical safety data sheet contains information for safe handling, potential dangers to human health and the environment.
  • Chemical risks in the working environment must be assessed.

Chemical hazards

When working with the chemical, first check the label on the chemical packaging. 
If the packaging of a chemical has one of the signs below, it is a hazardous chemical.

The precautionary principle must be applied to reduce the risks posed by chemicals. This means preventing damage to health and the environment, replacing hazardous substances with less hazardous ones if suitable alternatives are available, and adopting safer technologies.

The environment and human health are inseparable for the safe handling of chemicals – the aim is to ensure a high-quality environment that does not pose health risks, even for the most vulnerable groups, such as children, the sick, pregnant women and the elderly, and preserves nature and property.

Ways for chemicals to enter the body:

  • through inhaled air – chemical dust, mist, smoke, gas, fumes;
  • absorption through the skin and mucous membranes (depending on the ability of chemicals to penetrate the skin) – solvents, aniline, phenol, etc.;
  • absorption through the digestive tract – through hands, water and food, but also chemical dust, mist, smoke, gas, fumes, liquids;
  • transfer from the mother to the foetus – all chemicals that enter the body also enter the bloodstream and can harm the foetus.

Chemicals have different effects – acute or long term, reversible and irreversible, local or general. Assessing the effects of chemicals is also complicated by their interactions. In the case of chemical interactions, the equation ‘1 + 1 = 2’ does not generally apply, because many chemicals interact to enhance mutually hazardous properties. A classic example is the interaction of asbestos and cigarette smoke, as well as the interaction of several chemicals used in dry cleaning.

Chemicals can have different health hazards. Some of the more than 100,000 chemicals on the European Union market can cause malignant tumours, foetal damage, asthma, central nervous system disorders, respiratory diseases, allergic diseases and many other health problems.

Particular attention must be paid to substances which are:

  • toxic;
  • carcinogens (the International Agency for Research on Cancer has compiled a list of chemicals that pose a risk of cancer and should therefore be avoided, i.e. the so-called IARC list or International Agency for Research on Cancer List of Cancer Causing Chemicals);
  • allergens (attention must be paid to skin contact and skin protection);
  • damaging to the reproductive organs;
  • flammable (compliance with fire safety requirements);
  • quantitatively most commonly used;
  • dangerous for the environment.

Chemicals that spread through the outside air enter the human body through the respiratory tract, both from the air outside and indoors. Health problems caused by ambient air pollution, both acute and chronic, can particularly occur in contaminated areas. The main pollutants in the ambient air are industrial emissions, exhaust gases and emissions from combustion plants – these are volatile organic compounds, dust particles or acid gases (sulphur, nitrogen, carbon oxides).

Indoor chemicals primarily affect people that spend a lot of time indoors. Often the content of chemicals indoors is much higher than in the outside air. We also tend to forget that dangerous chemicals are produced in the preparation of food, as well as during smoking. Household dust absorbs many different chemicals – pesticides, polychlorinated biphenyls, hydrocarbons, phthalates, phenols and many other chemicals. Lead is present in house dust in the rooms with works of art containing lead and in mining areas. The content of indoor chemicals is increased by various used building materials, finishing materials and furniture.

Exposure of chemicals to the body through drinking water Chemicals that enter the body through the digestive tract mostly originate from drinking water. Various chemicals can be absorbed into the body, including through the skin from bathing water. The main polluters of surface water are emissions from agriculture (pesticides), as well as mining water.

Effects of contaminated soil Soil contamination can be caused, for example, by farms, mines and effluents. From there, various chemicals can enter the body through fruits grown in the contaminated soil.

Legislation related to chemicals The handling of chemical hazards in the working environment is regulated by the following regulations:

When exposed to chemical hazards, it is also important to know the requirements of the Chemicals Act, which regulates the handling of chemicals and the restriction of economic activities related to the handling of chemicals in order to protect human life and health, property and the environment, and to ensure the free movement of goods.

Safety data sheet

A Safety Data Sheet (SDS) for a chemical is a document for professional use that contains sufficient information on a hazardous chemical required by law for the safe handling of the chemical, informs about the potential hazard (likelihood of side effects) to human health and the environment, and must allow the necessary measures to be taken to protect the health, safety and environment of an enterprise’s employees. A safety data sheet is a tool for communicating information in the supply chain.

When sourcing hazardous chemicals and materials containing them, employers must obtain from the supplier all relevant information on the hazardous chemical, including safety data sheets in Estonian in accordance with Article 31 of the REACH Regulation. 

If an employer has purchased a hazardous chemical for which they did not receive a chemical safety data sheet from the supplier, the employer must not make the chemical available to the worker because it is not known how the chemical should be handled safely and what the potential health risks of the chemical are. The seller of the chemical is obliged to provide the buyer of the chemical with the safety data sheet; if the safety data sheet is not offered, the buyer must ask for it themselves. If the employer buys chemicals from outside Estonia and it is not possible to obtain a safety data sheet in Estonian from the supplier, the employer must arrange for the safety data sheet to be translated (the chemical must not be used by the employee before the safety data sheet is available in Estonian).

It is not possible for an employer to acquire personal protective equipment with the required protective properties without knowing exactly what properties the chemical has. The safety data sheet for a chemical must contain information on what personal protective equipment must be used in contact with it and what are the protective properties it must have. For example, the material of the gloves to be worn in contact with the chemical, the construction of the goggles or the type of respiratory protection to be worn must be specified. If gloves made of the wrong material are used to protect against the chemical, personal protective equipment may not be useful at all as the chemical can corrode the glove. If the wrong type of respiratory protection is used, the worker may still inhale the chemical. When using a chemical that is severely irritating to the eyes, not just any goggles are sufficient, as tight-fitting goggles must be worn to prevent contact with the eyes.

The safety data sheet also contains information on health risks and first aid measures. When using hazardous chemicals, there must be an eye shower (eyewash bottle) in the workplace. When purchasing eyewash bottles, you should also consider how long you need to rinse your eyes. The safety data sheet states the number of minutes that the eyes need to be rinsed and this time must be adhered to.

The chemical safety data sheet also contains information on how to store the chemical and with which other chemicals contact should be avoided.

In order to assess the risk of exposure to a chemical hazard in the occupational risk assessment, it is necessary to know the properties of the chemical that the worker comes into contact with; for example, whether the chemical poses a risk while inhaled, is dangerous to the eyes, or causes drowsiness and dizziness so that the worker may not be able to leave the room or call for help.

If the exposure to a chemical results in physical harm to the employee and it is necessary to consult a doctor, the doctor needs to be provided with the safety data sheet so that they would know what is causing the health problem.

Chemical safety data sheets must be kept in an easily accessible place (if an accident occurs and it is necessary to know what extinguishing measures to use or how to give first aid, there is not much time to look for their safety data sheet). The internal control of the working environment could also review the availability of safety data sheets for all hazardous chemicals used. For example, one chemical has been replaced by another, but a safety data sheet for the new chemical has not yet been obtained.

However, the principle of reasonableness must also be followed, and if the enterprise uses, for example, dishwashing detergent so that each employee can wash their dishes, the employer does not need to obtain a safety data sheet and introduce the safety data sheet to employees if there is enough information on the packaging (including clearly legible information), which allows appropriate measures to be taken to protect health, safety and the environment. However, the hazards of a substance must also be verified when using household chemicals, as these can also have very harmful effects on health.


Risk reduction of chemicals

  • Sale and procurement of chemicals – try to anticipate the use of the safest possible chemicals.
  • Counselling, training – motivating, training and instructing the general public and managers and employees at all levels to use chemicals safely and to better understand the information in safety data sheets. Motivating employees for continuous individual development.
  • Instruction, training – the operator of the chemical must have the necessary information on the physical and chemical properties, hazards, safety requirements and disposal of the chemical, and must comply with the safety requirements for handling the chemical. The employer must ensure that workers are aware of the potential health effects of hazardous chemicals and materials containing them at work, the appropriate personal protective equipment to reduce exposure, the results of risk assessments, safety data sheets, occupational airborne measurements and limits, as well as the legislation regulating the work. The employer must provide employees with training on safe work practices.
  • Safe storage of chemicals – identification of incompatible chemicals, determination of storage quantities, condition of storage and compliance of fire safety with storage requirements, prevention of leaks, etc. Identification of flammable substances, electrical earthing and smoking bans, waste, fire extinguishers, etc.
  • Cleanliness and cleaning – cleanliness in the workplace is a prerequisite for safe and efficient work and reduces the risk of workers being exposed to potential contaminants.
  • Working methods – choose the safest possible working methods.
  • Labelling – labelling of equipment, utensils and other tools used in the handling of hazardous chemicals.
  • Improving ventilation – place the local extraction system as close as possible to the source of contamination to remove contaminants at source.
  • Personal protective equipment – observe chemical handling requirements, use personal protective equipment as specified in section 8 of the safety data sheet.
  • Monitoring of risk factors – if necessary, measurements of the parameters of risk factors, implementation of necessary safety measures.
  • Emissions – assess which emissions need to be reduced more quickly, removing emissions at source.
  • Waste – implementation of waste handling requirements, identification and organisation of waste reduction, recycling and recovery opportunities.
  • Supervision – internal control procedures, taking necessary safety measures.
  • Health examination – organise a health examination at an occupational health doctor for an employee who is exposed to hazardous chemicals and materials containing them in the course of their work. By following the recommendations of the occupational health doctor, it is possible to reduce the hazards arising from the working environment.
  • Replacing hazardous chemicals with less hazardous ones – the most effective way to avoid the health risks posed by a chemical is to replace hazardous chemicals with less hazardous ones. For example, products containing organic solvents (paints and varnishes) are usually interchangeable with aqueous ones. In recent years, water-based alternatives to adhesives have also emerged. The solvents chosen should be as safe as possible, for example aliphatic hydrocarbons may be used instead of organochlorine and aromatic solvents, other glycols instead of ethylene and butyl glycol ethers. Carcinogenic substances should be avoided.
  • Risk assessment – In the course of a risk assessment, the employer is obliged to:
  • characterise the working conditions at the workplace, taking into account the hazards associated with all possible hazardous chemicals and materials containing them;
  • measure the content of chemical substances in the air of the working environment and compare them with the limit values;
  • assess the magnitude, nature and duration of the potential health risk;
  • determine safety measures and the procedure for their implementation.


Based on the risk assessment, the employer can decide on:

  • the chemicals to be used and their quantities;
  • the technologies to be used;
  • the suitability of production facilities;
  • appropriate protection measures and preparedness in the event of an accident;
  • the work process planning (the minimum number of workers to be exposed to the chemicals, storage conditions for the chemicals, etc.);
  • risk reduction options (identification, classification, labelling, safety data sheets, replacement of hazardous chemicals by safer or less hazardous ones, correct handling measures, protection measures, definition of areas, hygiene measures, training, etc.).

Dangerous Substances e-tool

Dangerous Substances e-tool - consisting of a short and a long questionnaire, giving you an individualized list of recommendations and actions.

This dangerous substances e-tool will give you an overview of the safety and health hazards associated with dangerous substances and chemical products in the workplaces of your company. Based on your input, you will get tailored, company-specific advice on how to apply good practices and measures, and on how to follow the relevant rules and regulations. If you take the recommended action, you will effectively reduce the risks caused by dangerous substances and chemical products in your workplace.