Oiled Sea Otter Capture Course

Chemical Safety


The objective of this chapter is to provide guidance to wildlife responders who use hazardous materials so that they may perform their work safely. Many of these materials are toxic. Many chemicals are relatively non-hazardous by themselves but become dangerous when they interact with other substances, either in planned experiments or by accidental contact.

To avoid injury and/or property damage, persons who handle oiled animals and chemicals in any area of the rehabilitation center must understand the hazardous properties of the chemicals with which they will be working. Before using a specific chemical, safe handling methods must always be reviewed. Supervisors are responsible for ensuring that the equipment needed to work safely with chemicals is provided.

Hazcom Plan

On May 25, 1986 the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) placed in effect the requirements of a new standard called Hazard Communication (29 CFR 1910.120). This standard establishes requirements to ensure that chemical hazards in the workplace are identified and that this information, along with information on protective measures, is transmitted to all affected responders. This includes wildlife responders treating sea otters oiled with Alaska North Slope crude oil, who fall under section 120.(q) (11) (ii) of the standards. Subpart (q) (11) is applicable “Where the clean-up is done on plant property using plant or workplace employees…”. An example of this would be the Sea Otter Rehabilitation Center where oiled otters are received and cleaned by staff in the confines of the facility.

This section describes how workers are informed of the potential chemical hazards in their work area so they can avoid harmful exposures and safeguard their health. Components of this program include labeling, preparing a material safety data sheet (MSDS), and training.

With regard to MSDS, International Wildlife Research has limited coverage under the OSHA Hazard Communication Standard. IWR is required to maintain only those sheets that are received with incoming shipments.

IWR must:

  • Identify hazards for respective work areas.
  • Ensure hazards are properly labeled.
  • Obtain/maintain copies of material safety data sheets, as required, of each hazardous material used in the work area and make them accessible to workers during each work shift.
  • Have the written Hazard Communication Program available to all responders.
  • Provide hazard-specific training for workers.

Wildlife responders must:

  • Attend training meetings.
  • Perform operations in safe manner.
  • Notify management immediately of any safety hazards or injuries.
  • When ordering materials, identify hazardous chemicals.

The number of hazardous chemicals and the number of reactions between them is so large that prior knowledge of all potential hazards cannot be assumed. Therefore, when the chemical properties of a material are not fully known, it should be assumed hazardous and used in as small quantities as possible to minimize exposure and thus reduce the magnitude of unexpected events.

The following general safety precautions should be observed when working with chemicals:

  • Keep the work area clean and orderly.
  • Use the necessary safety equipment.
  • Carefully label every container with the identity of its contents and appropriate hazard warnings.
  • Store incompatible chemicals in separate areas.
  • Substitute less toxic materials whenever possible.
  • Provide means of containing the material if equipment or containers should break or spill their contents.
  • Obtain and read the Material Safety Data Sheets.

The Niosh pocket guide is available to all wildlife responders and can be used to find more specific information on a known chemical. Chemicals are in alphabetical order. Information is provided on chemical composition up and characteristics, trade names, flash point, lower explosive limit (LEL), upper explosive limit (UEL), vapor pressure, health hazards and exposure limits, and first aid.

Properties and Potential Hazards of Petroleum Hydrocarbons

Petroleum is an organic liquid primarily containing hydrocarbons with smaller percentages of sulphur, nitrogen, and oxygen. Trace metals can also be found. The constituents can be vapor, liquid, or solid. The gaseous and volatile liquid fractions make petroleum highly flammable, irritating, and toxic if inhaled. Weathered crude petroleum, subjected to the interaction with water, wind, salt, and air, is not flammable but can be harmful if in prolonged contact with skin. The combination of oil and salt water is particularly harsh on skin. As the petroleum ages, it solidifies and congeals to a mousse consistency. This material adheres to beach rocks and objects, creating a slipping hazard for shoreline workers.

Petrochemical products are composed of aromatic and non-aromatic petroleum hydrocarbons. The chemical composition of each product will determine its toxicity to wildlife and personnel working in the rehabilitation center. Crude oil. diesel fuel, gasoline, and various grades of refined oil are the most common petrochemicals that are spilled. These products can range from light fractions such as gasoline, to heavy ones such as Bunker C. Petroleum products (oil) are not benign substances. Their chemical composition and physical properties pose both health and safety concerns. Benzene and hydrogen sulfide are the two most common hazardous chemicals found in oil.

Usually, the oil on wildlife arriving at the rehabilitation center will be weathered and contain negligible amounts of these volatile components. Nevertheless, the triage and cleaning rooms should have adequate ventilation to prevent the accumulation of petrochemical fumes. Along with wildlife, personnel at the rehabilitation center may be exposed to petroleum hydrocarbons. The primary routes of exposure are inhalation, absorption and ingestion.

1. Inhalation. Petroleum products emit volatile hydrocarbons called vapors or fumes. Their concentration and toxicity vary considerably. It is important to be aware of the hazards associated with vapors. Everyone has different tolerance levels to vapors; some people may show or feel the effects of petroleum vapors faster than others. However, do not let yourself be fooled! You may think the vapors are not affecting you when they are. Never rely on seeing ill effects in others as a warning that petroleum vapor is present. Inhalation of volatile petroleum hydrocarbons can cause respiratory distress, nausea, and dizziness; some of the ill effects of breathing petroleum vapors resemble drunkenness. Persons with these symptoms should notify their supervisor and leave the exposure area. If symptoms persist for more than several hours, the individual should seek medical attention. When suspicious of vapor levels, or if feeling effects of petroleum vapors, contact your supervisor. Remember, the absence of smell does NOT mean the absence of petroleum vapor.

2. Absorption. Direct contact with petroleum hydrocarbons can irritate the skin, especially sensitive areas around the eyes, nose and mouth. Injection as the direct result of a puncture wound can also provide a route of entry for petroleum hydrocarbons and bacteria. Immediately wash the area of exposure with soap and water. If oil contacts an individual’s eye, flush the eye with water for fifteen minutes. Notify the supervisor and seek first aid. Wear appropriate gloves, safety glasses or goggles when handling oiled wildlife to minimize the risk of absorbing petroleum hydrocarbons.

3. Ingestion. Although this mode of exposure is unlikely in the rehabilitation center, ingesting significant quantities of petroleum hydrocarbons may cause nausea, vomiting, and dizziness. Do not induce vomiting. Notify the supervisor and seek immediate medical attention.

Supervisor Responsibility

Supervisors are responsible for establishing safe procedures and for ensuring that the protective equipment needed to work with the chemicals is available. Supervisors must instruct their responders about possible hazards, safety precautions that must be observed, possible consequences of an accident, and procedures to follow if an accident does occur. The supervisor is required to enforce the proper use of protective equipment and the established safety practices.

It is the responsibility of wildlife responders and all who use International Wildlife Research facilities to understand the properties of the chemicals with which they will work and to follow all precautions that apply to each specific task.

Supervisors must instruct their personnel about the potential hazards involved in the work, proper safety precautions to follow, and emergency procedures to use if an accident should occur. To supplement the supervisor’s training, IWR will conduct training courses. In addition, material safety data sheets and safety information, including hazards, health effects, potential routes of exposure, proper handling precautions, and emergency procedures on specific chemicals, are available through the Responsible Safety Officer’s office.

Effects on Reproduction

Both men and women may be exposed to hazardous agents that can cause infertility or result in genetic damage that is passed on to offspring. These agents include components of petroleum hydrocarbons, alcohol, cigarette smoke, pharmaceuticals, and some of the thousands of different chemicals that are used in the home or workplace. Although many of these have been tested to determine whether they cause acute (immediate) effects on the body, few have been studied to see if they cause cancer (carcinogens), birth defects (teratogens), or genetic defects (mutagens). Even fewer have been studied to see if they can cause infertility, menstrual disorders, or other disorders relating to reproduction.

The primary path for hazardous substances to reach an unborn child is through the placenta. Scientists now believe that most chemical substances or drugs can cross this barrier with varying degrees of ease and enter the system of the developing fetus. Thus, many chemicals and drugs that enter a pregnant woman’s body (through breathing, swallowing, absorption through the skin, etc.) will eventually enter the mother’s blood circulation and find their way into the unborn child.

In general, the important questions of exactly how much of the toxic substance that enters the mother’s body will reach the fetus or what concentration the fetus can tolerate without harmful effects are not yet answered.

The fetus may be most vulnerable in the early weeks of pregnancy, but it is also at risk later in pregnancy. In light of the potential harm of workplace exposures to both a pregnant woman and her developing fetus, it is very important and required by International Wildlife Research policy for the woman to inform their supervisor of her pregnancy immediately.


All containers (including glassware, safety cans, plastic squeeze bottles) must have labels that identify their chemical contents. Labels should also contain information on the hazards associated with the use of the chemical. Precautionary labels are available from your supervisor for most of the common chemicals.

Chemical Storage

The separation of chemicals (solids or liquids) during storage is necessary to reduce the possibility of unwanted chemical reactions caused by accidental mixing. Use either distance or barriers (e.g., trays) to isolate chemicals into the following groups:

  • Flammable liquids (e.g., acetone, benzene, ethers, alcohols). Place in approved fire lockers.
  • Other liquids (e.g., chloroform, trichloroethane).
  • Acids (e.g., nitric, sulfuric, hydrochloric, perchloric). * Treat acetic acid as a flammable liquid.
  • Bases (e.g., sodium hydroxide, ammonium hydroxide).
  • Chemicals must not be stored in the same refrigerator used for food storage. Refrigerators used for storing chemicals must be appropriately identified by placing a label on the door (labels may be obtained from Responsible Safety Officer).


    In case of an emergency, consider any of the following actions if appropriate:

    • Evacuate people from the area.
    • Isolate the area.
    • If the material is flammable, turn off ignition and heat sources.
    • Call the Fire Department or 911 for assistance.
    • Wear appropriate personal protective equipment.
    • Clean up; place waste in plastic bag for disposal.

    Disposal of Chemicals

    All wildlife responders using hazardous chemicals are responsible for disposing of these chemicals safely.
    Federal and state regulations mandate strict disposal procedures for chemicals. To comply with these regulations, all persons using IWR facilities must observe these procedures.

    In general the disposal of hazardous chemicals into the sanitary sewer is not permitted. Your supervisor will advise on the proper disposal of chemical wastes.

    In using chemical waste storage containers, certain procedures must be observed, as listed below:

    Incompatible chemicals must not be mixed in the same container (e.g., acids should not be mixed with bases; organic liquids should not be mixed with strong oxidizing agents).

    The following requirements must be met as a condition for pickup and disposal of chemicals:

    Dry materials (gloves, wipes, pipettes, etc.) must be securely contained in plastic bags and over packed in a cardboard box.

    Packages that are wet or have sharp protruding objects will not be accepted for pick up.