Taking home toxins

Are your workers putting their families at risk?

Unfortunately, workers can carry hazardous substances home from work on their clothes, their bodies, their tools, and other items. That means they could unknowingly expose their families to these substances, causing various health effects such as respiratory problems, neurologic disorders, and fatal poisonings. These kinds of exposures can also occur when the home and workplace are not separated, such as on farms.


Some hazardous substances that cause health effects among workers’ families include: beryllium, asbestos, lead, mercury, arsenic, cadmium, pesticides, caustic farm products, chlorinated hydrocarbons, estrogenic substances, allergens, fibrous glass, and infectious agents like scabies and Q fever.

Routes of exposure

Hazardous substances like those just mentioned can reach workers’ homes and family members through a number of methods. These “routes of exposure” include:

  • Work clothing, even washing machines and dryers;
  • Tools and equipment;
  • Bags, rags, metal drums, scrap lumber, and other items taken home from work;
  • The worker’s body, especially hands;
  • Homes where the work was done;
  • Farming; and
  • Family visits to the workplace.

Preventive measures

The good news is hazardous substances don’t have to reach the home. There are a number of simple things you can train your workers to do to avoid taking these substances home:

  • Use good safety practices to reduce exposure;
  • Wear proper personal protective equipment;
  • Store hazardous substances properly;
  • Dispose of dangerous materials properly;
  • Leave soiled clothes at work;
  • Change clothes before leaving work;
  • Store non-work clothes away from work clothes;
  • Shower before leaving work;
  • Don’t take tools, scrap, packaging, and similar items home;
  • Launder work clothes separately; and
  • Prevent family members from visiting the work area.


While prevention is the best approach, you may be considering a decontamination method. However, the results of decontamination depend on the cleaning methods used, the material to be removed, and the surface to be cleaned. Moreover, decontamination is difficult and may not even be effective.

Decontamination options include air showers, laundering, dry cleaning, shampooing, airing, vacuuming, and other surface cleaning methods. Soft materials such as carpet and clothing are the hardest to clean. Lead, asbestos, pesticides, and beryllium can be especially difficult to remove. What’s more, normal laundering usually does not succeed, and, sometimes, even the strongest decontamination methods fail. Decontamination, itself, may even increase the hazard to people in the home by stirring materials into the air.

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