Ototoxic Chemicals in the Workplace and Some Key Safety Tips

Exposure to ototoxic chemicals is a serious issue, and one of increasing concern, in many workplace environments. Given this significance, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has published a Safety and Health Information Bulletin focused on chemical ototoxicity and its prevention. In this blog post we take a look at the issue of ototoxicity and review some noted safety tips.

A Look at Ototoxic Chemicals

While noise exposure has consistently been recognized as the principal contributor to workplace-related hearing impairment, awareness of the risks posed by chemicals in this regard has grown steadily in recent years. Ototoxic chemicals are substances that can yield harm by impacting inner ear structures and/or their function, or by affecting parts of the nervous system related to hearing. Sometimes referred to as either neurotoxicants, cochleotoxicants, or vestibulotoxicants (depending on the parts of the ear impacted), ototoxic chemicals generally can be grouped into one of several substance classes: asphyxiants, metals and compounds, nitriles, pharmaceuticals, or solvents. Examples for each of these classes are shown in the table below.

Substance ClassChemical Examples
  • Carbon monoxide
  • Hydrogen cyanide and its salts Tobacco smoke
Metals and compounds
  • Germanium dioxide
  • Lead
  • Mercury compounds
  • Organic tin compounds
  • 3-Butenenitrile
  • 3,3’-Iminodipropionitrile
  • Acrylonitrile
Pharmaceuticals (with ototoxicity generally limited at therapeutic doses)
  • Certain aminoglycosides
  • Certain analgesics and antipyretics
  • Certain antineoplastic agents
  • Certain loop diuretics
  • Carbon disulfide
  • Ethylbenzene
  • Toluene
  • Trichloroethylene

Source: Occupational Safety and Health Administration

Some Tips for Safety

When dealing with harmful chemicals of any type, the key to safety lies in prevention. OSHA has noted that factors such as the control of chemical exposure and the use of personal protective equipment can be useful in helping to keep workers safe from ototoxic chemicals.

  • Controlling Chemical Exposure

    • If the presence of an ototoxicant is known or discovered, its elimination is the most effective means of controlling exposure. This is often accomplished via chemical substitution (replacing hazardous chemical substances with safer alternatives). As this is not always feasible or possible, control measures such as proper enclosure and ventilation are often recommended. Measures to address workplace noise exposure should also be considered, as the potential for hearing impairment is elevated when individuals exposed to ototoxic chemicals are also exposed to increased noise levels.
  • Personal Protective Equipment

    • Use of personal protective equipment (PPE) is recommended when handling any hazardous chemical substances. Like other chemicals, ototoxicants can enter the body in different ways. PPE should correspond with the likely entry route(s) for these substances (e.g., skin protection, respiratory protection).

To Learn More

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