Every workplace should develop a systematic way to label chemical containers to minimize chemical mismatches and cross contaminations. It protects the health and safety of workers and prevents financial losses due to fines for code violations and broken machinery that can cause serious incidents such as fires or explosions.

Why is Chemical Exposure Dangerous?

Chemical exposure carries with it severe consequences to human health and workplace safety. OSHA violations when handling chemicals can result in injuries, illness, and emotional distress, in addition to financial losses for the company. Workers can be subject to complications such as damage to the heart or central nervous system, kidney and lung damage, sterility, cancer, burns, or rashes.

What Does a Good Labeling System Look Like?

The basics of a sound, structured labeling system incorporate several aspects which make it easy for workers to identify and use correctly. First, the system should be user-friendly and understandable, including easy-to-read visual aids such as color-coded shapes and symbols. Next, the use of secondary containers to eliminate chemical mismatches and cross-contamination should be implemented. The most efficient way is to create an at-a-glance system that allows employees to navigate the materials, proper use, and routes to take with certainty, reducing the chances for confusion or mistakes.

How One Company Turned It Around

Let’s look at a case study of a manufacturing plant that faced a challenge due to a high number of incidences of chemical mismatches and cross-contamination. The plant was run inefficiently, and employees were experiencing high turnover and a danger to their health and safety every day. Additionally, the repeated violations were costing the company money with workers’ compensation costs and lowered productivity. Worker injuries affected their health and safety along with morale.

The company’s investigation into what was going wrong concluded that a high number of health and safety incidences occurred due to the mismatch and cross-contamination of hydraulic oils. A mismatch happened when oil was transferred to the wrong machine, and cross-contamination happened when incompatible oils were mixed. The plant used six types of oils to lubricate motors, pumps, and cutting parts for each piece of equipment. The oils were kept in a bulk storage area where machine operators would go to collect the oil. The investigation revealed that often the employees were uncertain of the specific oil needed for a particular machine, which resulted in choosing the wrong one, creating operation risk and causing cross-contamination. The consequences ranged from wasted oil and broken machinery to worker injuries such as thermal burns and inhalation of toxic smoke. And there were also the financial consequences of medical treatment and machinery repair.

9 Steps of Implementation that Created an At-A-Glance Labeling System

Route Mapping – Workers were required to carry portable containers from bulk storage tank areas to each machine’s oil tank. Using mapped travel routes and defined steps to take identified the interventions that were needed to stop mismatches and cross-contaminations.
Critical Control Points – The incidences where mismatches occurred were identified, such as where oil was transferred from bulk storage to a portable container and then where the worker transferred oil from the container to the machine. These were critical points within each of the mapped routes.

Visual Management System – A blueprint or key was created to assign symbols, shapes, and colors to each material to instantly visually identify substances. The system was clear to all participants.

Source Labeling – A key of colored shapes and a hazardous material identification system (HMIS) was put in place on bulk storage tanks and distribution spigots so that workers would have no doubt or confusion regarding the material within each tank when collecting the material.

Secondary Container Labeling – Using a color-coordinated system of containers, lids, sizes, and/or shapes differentiated the portable containers for each substance making the labeling and identification visual and straightforward. Since portable containers were the connecting point between the storage tanks and machinery, this was critical in being identified correctly.

Machine Labeling – At each point where the machine was lubricated with oil, there was a permanently affixed visual key with corresponding colors, shapes, and symbols for the appropriate material. Machine labeling prevented mismatches, helping workers verify the correct fluid was going into the proper machine, as well as assisting them in locating all the lubrication points on the machinery.

Secondary Container Storage Area – Creating a dedicated storage area for the portable containers reduced the chance of a mismatch and provided easy access to the correct containers for workers, allowing them to easily use the system as it was designed.

Training – Rolling out an at-a-glance labeling plan required educating workers on the system. Employees practiced using new color-coded systems to match up the correct oils from the source, transport the material, and carry the appropriate container to the proper intake spots on the right machine. This reduced mistakes. In addition, a refresher course reminded workers of the safety system and reinforced the habit.

Auditing – Determining the effectiveness of the system put in place required reviewing its use, maintaining the integrity of the labeling system, collecting feedback, and identifying any need for improvements.

The Results of the Intervention

In the first year after implementing the at-a-glance labeling system, the manufacturing company in our case study saved over $3.5 million in expenditures related to machine maintenance, repairs, and worker compensation costs. It also reduced the risk of injuries and illnesses and production delays while increasing worker morale and productivity. They even simplified the onboarding of temporary workers as the visual system replaced the need for language proficiency.

By developing a systematic way to label chemical containers, you can minimize dangerous chemical mismatches and damage from cross contaminations. Additionally, it will help you remain in compliance with OSHA standards and avoid citations and unnecessary associated costs.



Ndana, J., PSJ Professional Safety, May 2021. At-A-Glance Labeling: A Proven Technique to Minimize Chemical Mismatches and Cross Contaminations

Photo credit Madelynn Woods, Unsplash