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People are exposed to varying levels of radiation every day. For example, medical X-rays emit radiation. However, a medical X-ray is not considered a significant hazard. The biggest hazards come with acute exposure to high levels of radiation or prolonged exposure to lower levels.
Radiation hazards in the workplace can lead to a wide range of adverse health effects when employees or employers fail to follow proper safety regulations. Radiation exposure may increase the risk of cancer, cataracts, burns, and even death.
Employers have a duty to maintain a safe work environment as far as is reasonably practical. This includes identifying potential sources of harmful radiation. Employees also need the right training and equipment to minimise their exposure to radiation.
Radiation Hazards in the Workplace
People do not need to work at a nuclear power plant to be exposed to radiation. Radiation comes from a wide range of sources. However, some sources pose a greater risk of negative health effects compared to others.
For example, natural background radiation from ultraviolet (UV) rays is not considered a major threat to your health. However, continuous exposure to UV rays from welding without proper equipment may lead to health problems.
Radiation is typically categorised as “ionising radiation” or “non-ionising radiation”. Non-ionising radiation comes from:
- Infrared light
- Ultraviolet (UV) rays
- Microwave energy
- Lasers and high-intensity light sources
Non-ionising radiation from natural sources, such as UV rays from the sun, is not a major threat. Ionising radiation contains more energy and poses a greater risk when exposed to high levels. Examples of ionising radiation include gamma rays produced from medical X-rays or a radioactive substance such as radon gas. Cosmic radiation is also a type of ionising radiation. However, it is not harmful to humans or plants on Earth.
Exposure to potentially harmful ionising radiation is typically kept at a minimum. However, radon gas and other radioactive materials can create a workplace hazard without the right safety procedures.
Rules to Remember When Dealing with Radiation
The National Directory for Radiation Protection (NDRP) developed a framework for radiation safety practices. Based on the recommendations of the NDRP, here are safe radiation procedures to follow when dealing with potential exposure to radiation:
- Identify sources of radiation
- Monitor levels of radiation
- Maintain safe distances from radiation sources
- Limit time spent near radiation sources
- Use personal protective equipment (PPE)
- Monitor the health of employees exposed to radiation
The steps for dealing with radiation follow the hierarchy of control measures. The goal is to eliminate or minimise the hazard through changes to work practices.
The first step for dealing with radiation is to identify all potential sources that workers may be exposed to. Electronic devices are a common radiation source in industrial settings. Other potential sources of radiation in industrial settings include welding equipment, chemicals, and batteries.
After identifying the sources of radiation, monitor the radiation levels emitted by the source using a Geiger counter. In Australia, the national standard for limiting radiation exposure is 20 millisieverts (mSv) per year averaged over five years.
The best practice for avoiding radiation exposure is to adjust work practices to keep employees away from radiation sources. For example, equipment may be used in place of an employee to handle or transport radioactive materials.
Unfortunately, it is not always possible to maintain a safe distance from radiation sources. When workers must work closely with potential sources of radiation, they should limit the time spent with the material or object. This may involve adjusting the work roster to rotate employees. A rotation of workers allows each employee to spend less time interacting with radioactive materials.
Radiation protection equipment is the least effective method for dealing with radiation. Avoiding exposure is the most effective option. However, when employees must work around radiation sources, personal protective equipment (PPE) may minimise exposure. Examples of radiation protection equipment for dealing with radiation include lead aprons, gloves, and face shielding.
Continue to monitor the health of employees and their exposure levels. A device called a dosimeter can be used to measure the absorbed radiation dose. If the dosimeter detects levels of radiation that exceed the national standard, the employee should no longer work around radiation sources.
Along with these practices, employers should continually review and update their safety measures. It is also essential that each worker understands the safety procedures and the potential risks of radiation exposure.
Radiation Doses and Risks
Radiation exposure may cause skin burns, eye damage, cancer, or death. The biological effect of radiation exposure depends on the radiation level and the duration of exposure. A medical X-ray is less of a risk compared to direct exposure to a highly radioactive chemical.
Different units of measurement are used to measure different aspects of radiation. For example, when measuring the amount of radiation emitted by radioactive material, the international unit becquerel (Bq) or the British unit curie (Ci) is used.
Exposure refers to the amount of radiation in the air and is measured in roentgens (Rs) or coulomb/kilogram (C/kg). When measuring the dose of radiation absorbed by a person, units of “radiation absorbed dose” (rad) or units of gray (Gy) are used. One Gy is equal to 100 rads.
The risk of radiation exposure is measured using the international unit sievert (Sv) or the conventional unit rem. 1 Sv is equal to 100 rem. Health experts believe that exposure to 100 mSv (0.1 Sv) per year is the maximum safe level of exposure.
Cancer is the most common health risk associated with radiation exposure. Studies indicate that cumulative exposure to 1000 mSv leads to fatal cancer in 5 out of every 100 persons. 1000 mSv is the equivalent of 1 Sv or 100 rem.
Cancer is more of a concern when individuals are exposed to low to moderate doses of radiation over a long period. This may occur due to interaction with radioactive materials in the workplace or when working in an area with unsafe radiation levels.
Accidents such as the rupture of a radioactive source can lead to sudden exposure to high levels of radiation. This increases the risk of acute radiation syndrome. Symptoms include nausea and vomiting. Radiation sickness may also lead to death. However, an individual would need to receive a large radiation dose of 75 rads or more within a short period (minutes to several hours).
How to Be Prepared
Employers and employees should follow the codes of practice recommended by the National Directory of Radiation Protection (NDRP). Completing radiation safety training courses also prepares employees to address the hazards of radiation and minimise the risks.
Consider enrolling employees in a safety training course offered by a registered training organisation, such as AlertForce. With over a dozen safety courses to choose from, employers can ensure that their workers have the necessary skills and knowledge for maintaining a safe work environment.
Everyone is exposed to naturally occurring radiation each day. However, some work environments may expose employees to potentially harmful levels of radiation. To protect employees, employers should implement safe radiation procedures for identifying and minimising radiation hazards. This includes identifying the sources of radiation, analysing the effective dose of radiation, and minimising exposure with PPE and safe work practices.
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