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Workers’ understanding of chemical risks: electroplating case study


Background: There is limited research concerning how small companies in particular, respond to health and safety messages.

Aims: To understand individuals’ knowledge and beliefs about chemical risks and to compare these with those of experts.

Methods: The use of chromic acid in particular, and also other chemicals associated with chrome plating were studied. All chromium plating firms were based in the West Midlands. The methodology involved initial face to face interviews (n = 21) with chromium platers, structured questionnaires (n = 84) to test the prevalence of beliefs identified in the interviews, an expert questionnaire, and a workshop to discuss findings. The responses of platers were compared with those of occupational health and safety experts.

Results: Although chromium platers appeared to understand the short term adverse effects of the chemicals to which they are exposed, their understanding of long term, or chronic effects appeared to be incomplete. They had good knowledge of acute effects based primarily on experience. Platers were aware of the hazardous nature of the chemicals with which they work, but did not draw distinction between the terms “hazards” and “risks”. They had difficulties articulating the effects of the chemicals and how exposure might occur; although it is inappropriate to equate this with lack of knowledge. A significant minority of platers displayed deficiencies in understanding key technical terms used in Safety Data Sheets.

Conclusions: This study provides a method which can be used to gain some understanding of workers’ knowledge and beliefs about risks that they are exposed to in the workplace. The study also identifies gaps between the platers’ knowledge and beliefs and those of experts. New risk information needs to be designed which addresses the information needs of platers using language that they understand.

  • risk chemical messages
  • small companies
  • electroplaters
  • information needs and design
  • COSHH, Control of Substances Hazardous to Health
  • HSE, Health and Safety Executive
  • MEL, maximum exposure limit
  • PPE, personal protective equipment
  • SEA, Surface Engineering Association
  • SMEs, small and medium sized enterprises

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