Labeling chemicals properly is critical to work place safety. A recent incident at Oklahoma City’s Macklanburg-Duncan is an illustration of this point. The company manufactures weatherproofing materials, adhesives and coatings, tools, floor and carpet trim, metal moldings, and builder’s hardware. Last week, several workers were overcome while mixing a sodium hydroxide chemical solution. The solution began to smoke and made the three workers nauseous. The building was then evacuated and the workers were treated by emergency workers. The emergency workers noticed that after being given oxygen, their symptoms seemed to improve. Fire Deputy Chief Marc Woodard later stated that the mixing of mislabeled chemicals caused the situation. Fortunately, none of the workers required hospitalization.

A more serious example of the dangers of mislabeled chemicals involved the death of Delvin Henry several years ago. Mr. Henry died after being exposed to hazardous materials in a container mislabeled by Chemical & Metals Industries Inc. of Colorado. A later lawsuit alleged the company was guilty of negligent endangerment that led to Mr. Henry’s death, as well as illegal storage of hazardous materials.  When Mr. Henry opened the mislabeled container that held highly corrosive and toxic material, he suffered third-degree burns and was taken to the hospital, where he later died. The lawsuit resulted in a $12 million settlement which included $2 million in fines, $8 million in restitution to Mr. Henry’s family, and $2 million to local law enforcement agencies.

Another example of the dangers of mislabeled chemicals involved a worker who was severely burned while refilling an empty can with kerosene.  The worker was employed at a facility that used an empty paint thinner can to store kerosene for use in the maintenance shop.  This can was not labeled, but the practice had been going on for some time without incident.  On the day of the incident, the worker took the empty paint thinner can to the local gas station, which had one pump connected to a kerosene tank.  While the worker was filling the empty container with kerosene, it exploded spraying him with flaming kerosene.  Upon investigation, it was determined that the worker had taken the wrong empty paint thinner can to be refilled.  Instead of taking the empty paint thinner can that had been used to store kerosene for some time, he took another empty paint thinner can that had recently held paint thinner, and likely still had a small residual amount of left in the can.  Both the correct can that had contained kerosene, and the incorrect can that had contained paint thinner, were unlabeled and looked exactly the same.  The ignition and explosion occurred when an electrostatic discharge occurred because the worker filled can with kerosene while it was insulated from earth ground.

Handling hazardous chemicals in containers that are not properly labeled is a dangerous practice that can lead to serious injury to persons and damage to property.