Hazardous materials

Alternate Names

HazCom; Hazard communication; Material Safety Data Sheet; MSDS


Hazardous materials are substances that could harm human health or the environment if they are not handled the right way. Hazardous means dangerous.

Hazard communication is teaching people how to work with hazardous materials and waste. It is also called HazCom.

There are many different kinds of hazardous materials. Some of them are:

  • Chemicals, like some that are used for cleaning
  • Drugs, like chemotherapy to treat cancer
  • Radioactive material that is used for x-rays or radiation treatments
  • Human or animal tissue, blood, or other substances from the body that may carry harmful germs
  • Gases that are used to make patients sleep during surgery

Hazardous materials can harm you if they:

  • Touch your skin
  • Splash into your eyes
  • Get into your airways or lungs when you breathe
  • Cause fires or explosions

Your hospital or workplace will have policies about how to deal with these materials. You will receive special training if your work with these materials.

Watch out for Hazardous Materials

Know where hazardous materials are used and stored. Some common areas are where:

  • X-rays and other imaging tests are done
  • Radiation treatments are done
  • Medicines are handled, prepared, or given to patients -- especially drugs to treat cancer
  • Chemicals or supplies are delivered, packed for shipping, or thrown away

Always treat any container that does not have a label like it is hazardous. Treat any spilled substance the same way.

If you do not know if something you use or find is harmful, never be afraid to ask if it is.

Labels and Signs

Look for signs before you enter a patient room, a lab or x-ray area, a storage closet, or an area you do not know well.

You may see warning labelson boxes, containers, bottles, or tanks. Lookfor words like:

  • Acid or Alkali
  • Carcinogenic
  • Caution
  • Corrosive
  • Danger
  • Explosive
  • Flammable
  • Irritant
  • Radioactive
  • Unstable
  • Warning

A label called the Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) will tell you if a material is hazardous. This label tells you:

  • Names of the hazardous chemicals or substances in the container
  • Facts about the substance, such as the odor, or when it will boil or melt
  • How it could harm you or what your symptoms would be if you are exposed to the material
  • How to safely handle the material and what to wear when you handle it protective equipment
  • What steps to take before more skilled or trained help comes
  • If the material could cause a fire or explosion, and what to do if this happens
  • What to do if a spill or leak occurs
  • What to do if there is danger from the material if it mixes with other substances
  • How to safely store the material, including what temperature to keep it at, if moisture is safe, and whether it should be in a room with good airflow

Work Safely

If you find a spill, treat it like it is hazardous until you know what it is. This means:

  • Put on personal protective equipment (PPE), such asa respirator or mask and gloves that will protect you from chemicals.
  • Use disinfectant wipes to clean up the spill and put the wipes in double plastic bags.
  • Contact waste management to clean the area and throw away the supplies you used to clean up the spill.

Always treat any unlabeled container like it contains hazardous materials.

  • Put the container in a bag and take it to waste management to be thrown away.
  • Do not pour the material down the drain, put in the normal trash, or let it get into the air.

If you work with hazardous materials:

  • Read the Material Safety Data Sheet for all materials you use.
  • Know what type of PPE to wear.
  • Learn about risks, such as whether the material can cause cancer.
  • Know how to use the material and how to store it or throw it away when you are done.

Other tips:

  • Never enter an area where radiation therapy is taking place.
  • Always use the safest container to move materials from one area to another.
  • Check bottles, containers, or tanks for leaks.

Review Date: 3/2/2012
Reviewed By: David C. Dugdale, III, MD, Professor of Medicine, Division of General Medicine, Department of Medicine, University of Washington School of Medicine. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M. Health Solutions, Ebix, Inc.
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