Hazard Watch: Protecting your workforce from Hydrogen Cyanide exposure

Exposure to hydrogen cyanide can have a detrimental effect on a workforce. Our next Hazard Watch article details the dangers and what steps you can take to project employees.

What is hydrogen cyanide?

Hydrogen cyanide also known as hydrocyanic acid, is an industrially used chemical, which is mass produced globally each year, by many industries. It is an extremely flammable substance that is prevalent in a liquid or gas form and has a bitter almond-like odour.

The environment may be exposed to hydrogen cyanide as a result of specific industrial processes, combustion releases, or transportation accidents. Hydrogen cyanide gas can also be produced in the smoke or fumes from building fires, automobile exhaust, and fires involving nitrogen-containing substances like polyurethane foams.

Hydrogen cyanide can be used in workplaces for electroplating, mining, manufacturing of paints, plastics, synthetic fibres, and chemicals in pesticides. The occupational sectors that could be directly impacted by hydrogen cyanide exposure include factory workers, fumigators of ships and buildings, as well as labourers in manufacturing facilities, such as acrylic fibres, synthetic rubber and plastics. It has also been used as a fumigant to eradicate pests. 

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How does hydrogen cyanide affect health?

Exposure to hydrogen cyanide can potentially interfere with or hinder the body's ability to utilise oxygen. This can result in damage to the brain, cardiovascular system, blood vessels, and respiratory organs, which could lead to fatality.

Due to its toxicity levels, hydrogen cyanide prevents the body from utilising oxygen sufficiently. It causes fluid accumulation in the lungs, followed by accelerated breathing. This results in respiratory arrest. Extreme headaches, drowsiness, nausea, and dizziness are the common early signs of exposure to hydrogen cyanide. This can in turn deteriorate towards losing consciousness, slipping into a coma and other severe long-term effects on the brain and nervous system.

It is important to note that the negative health effects that a person might experience after being exposed, depend on a number of variables. These include the level of exposure, the length of exposure (measured in time) and the chemical's form. However long an employee might be exposed to hydrogen cyanide, it can still cause health conditions or symptoms, so its exposure must be carefully monitored.

Our expertise in monitoring hydrogen cyanide exposure

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has currently set workplace exposure limits for hydrogen cyanide at 1mg/m-3 over an 8-hour period. The short-term exposure limit (STEL) is 5mg/m-3.

Workplaces with potential of hydrogen cyanide exposure must strive to work below these limits to guarantee that the statutory limit is achieved. Within our state-of-the-art laboratories in the UK, RPS has deep expertise in monitoring hazards in the workplace and we can assist in monitoring exposure limits, to be in line with health and safety regulations.

Our laboratory experts provide analysis based on NIOSH 6010 of hydrogen cyanide, whereby the flow rate ranges from 0.05 to 0.2 L/min and the relevant media (SKC 226-10 Soda Lime tube) is used to monitor the levels of exposure in a workplace.

Only through constant monitoring of exposure levels, can employers ensure the safety of their workers, particularly in environments that could be hazardous.

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