These Substances You Work With Can Kill You. Here's How You Can Protect Yourself.

These Substances You Work With Can Kill You. Here's How You Can Protect Yourself.

My mechanic died two months ago. He didn't die in a car accident. He died of a lump which grew in his armpit. Strange huh! I first met Day about two years ago when a friend introduced me to him during my search for a trustworthy mechanic who won't do a ‘trial and error’ on my car. He was very stocky man, what we call in Ghana ‘thick-tall’ and was always with a broad smile. Day was always there whenever I had a car issue. 

I remember advising him to wear gloves to protect his hands whenever he worked with grease and oils at his workshop. I was worried about his calloused, darkened hands whenever I went to the workshop. I shared what I had learnt during my training in Occupational Hygiene at BOHS as much as I could about the hazards of these chemicals. He said the gloves made working more difficult but he would nevertheless try. 

About a year ago, I called him randomly to ask how he was doing and to berate him for not even asking of the car. He was his jovial self but told me that he hadn't been well for some time and that he had gotten a boil in his armpit. I brushed it off as nothing serious. I mean, really, we all get boils in our armpits sometimes especially after shaving. He said he had been to the hospital already. 

I later asked him to come by after my car had a brake pad problem. I went to the gate to meet him after he receiving his call that he was here. I was SHOCKED! What kind of boil was this? Day had shrunk before my eyes. He was still tall but now his body had shrunk horizontally in size and he had a gaunt look about him. 

“ Hoh! Day Maaba???”  * Day, why?*

“Hmmm… Sister, jee sane bibioo eh!” he responded. * Sister, its not a small matter.*

I wanted to probe further and invited him into the hall. My Mom joined us and also expressed shock at his appearance. He told us of his visits to the hospital and how the doctors said it was a skin infection or so. He was taking several drugs to treat it but nothing was happening although the boil was gone. He was now suspecting that it was someone in his family ‘ doing him’ so he was now going to a church in Kasoa. He was suspecting witchcraft. We gave him some financial support to help him through with the rest of the treatment. That was the last time I saw Day. He died leaving behind four kids and a wife. 

I think of all those mechanics working under very harsh conditions without protective gear and living in ignorance of what they are being exposed of and I shudder. I constantly see them sucking fuel from car tanks, opening leaking valves with their bare hands and dipping their hands in automobile oil. I remember the photo walk I led during#BlogCamp15 in Suame, Kumasi. Dangerous conditions of work. But who cares? You can find more photos under the hashtag on Instagram #SuameGang . 

Did Day die of skin cancer due to prolonged exposure to the chemicals he worked with? Did the build up of toxins in these chemicals lead to an irreversible skin disease? I cant judge but I sincerely believe they were contributing factors. 

People are dying in their workplaces and they aren't even aware that they are being exposed to serious health issues due to the substances they work with. Substances like paint, sand, varnishes, oils, flour, wheat, fertilisers, ink etc are all dangerous to your health if you work with these within your 8-hour work period. Office workers arent safe either. Back and neck pains are very common illnesses sedentary workers face every now and then due to incorrect posture and inappropriate work furniture.

Exposure to wheat and other grains during harvesting/processing can lead to allergic reactions.

A Galamsey miner. Photo by Emmanuel Bobbie

The sad thing is most employers are not protecting their employees from being exposed to these substances. This is also because the Ministry of Employment & Labor Relations are doing absolutely jack in enforcing laws set in the outmoded Factories, Offices & Shop Act 1970 (Act 328). No enforcement policies are in place to bind employers to do their moral and legal responsibilities towards their employees. Inspectors who are supposed to go around monitoring and inspecting factories are as rare as a unicorn. But let an incident occur right now and the media will be full of noise as usual with blame games everywhere.

Every substance we work with is poisonous. Whether it’s glass or paper, metal or paint, wood or fabric, noise or heat, they are all poisonous. 

"All substances are poisons, there is none which is not a poison. The right dose differentiates a poison and a remedy" – Paracelsus (1525)

How Can You Be Exposed To These Substances

The human body has many entry points for toxins to enter. Think of your skin, lungs, eyes 👀, nose 👃🏾, ears 👂🏽👂🏽, etc. There are many ways you can die from prolonged exposure to substances.

  • You stand a risk of illnesses like occupational asthma through the breathing in of fumes, mists, aerosols and vapours from fuels or paints. Or having dermatitis from your skin coming into contact with paints oils, soaps, bleaches and detergents. You can have hearing impairment from over exposure to noise above certain decibels or be blind in the eye from chemical splashes.
  • If you work in a silicone factory or cement producing factory, you are at the risk of silicosis and lung cancer. 
  • If you work in a flour producing factory you are at the risk of occupational asthma which occurs due to inhalation of flour particles over a period of time. The smaller the particles being inhaled, the more it is absorbed into the lungs causing a build up.  The lungs are unable to get rid of the particles due to the particle size.
  • If you work with wood ( furniture maker) over a long period of time, wood dust which collects in your nose and lungs can cause nasal sinus cancer. Leather dust can also cause same. 
  • Skin contamination with some paints which contain lead can lead to developmental delay conditions in the foetus of expectant mothers who work in the paint industry.

The scary thing about working with toxic substances is that they are chronic in nature. This means that if you are going to be ill in any way, the illness will show itself after about 3 years or more. It’s not acute or an immediate illness/sickness like malaria or cholera. 

One early morning, I run into a friend ( I have forgotten his name 😓 ) just as I was about to enter Rabito clinic. He called me by name and I spun around in surprise. As we exchanged pleasantries, he told me of an Uncle who was very ill with some form of cancer. I cant recollect what brought about the topic. His Uncle was apparently really sick and close to death. He had been diagnosed of some form of cancer of the lung or so. His family had sent him to almost every specialist and nothing was working. So now the family was suspecting witchcraft. I asked him where his Uncle worked and his response; “ Some printing press bi”. 

Hmmmm… Then I asked him if his lung had been infected and the response was yes. “ They said it was black in some areas or something like that".  So i shared with him the dangers of being exposed to toner ink which is used in the printing process. Toner ink disperses into the environment in tiny mists which aren't visible to the human eye. Many people working in the printing industry don't often wear nose masks when in the production stage of printing and they often work long hours in order to deliver printing products on time. He agreed that it made sense. Here is a list of health hazards you face if you are working in the printing industry. 

I went to Nice Nails to get my bridal nails done and I almost backed out in surprise! There was a thick cloud of nail varnish, nail removal and all kinds of aerosol vapour in the air. I saw some of the nail artistes wearing nose masks. At least they were protecting themselves. I suggested to one of the ladies to naturally ventilate the shop as often as they can. Her response was to laugh and say that, ‘This place we don't open the windows oh!’. 🙊

A friend also told me of her friend who has worked in the X-Ray department of a hospital in Accra for the past 10years.   He got married and after trying for some years, realised they couldnt conceive because he had been exposed to some of the X-Rays over a period of time. 😯


What Can You Do To Protect Yourself or Someone You Know?


  1. Find out the health hazards you are being exposed to at your workplace. - Don't live in ignorance Whether you work in a small-scale cleaning company or have your side gig as a wood carver or furniture maker, you need to know how you can protect yourself from the substances you are working with. There’s a lot of resources to glean from the HSE website. 
  2. Invest in protective gear.  Protective gear can be expensive but guess what, an injury or hospital bill is way more expensive. Gloves are great if you work with flour and other food ingredients on a constant basis.
  3.  Conduct a simple risk assessment ( Its very easy) If you own your own business, you owe it to yourself and your employees to do this. You can use this tool to do it. 

    4. Advice your friends and families about the risks they face. Dont keep all this knowledge to yourself. Instead of sharing funny cat photos, send them this article or any useful information you may find on the HSE website to them. 

    5. Go for annual medical checks- this is key if you work in mining, forestry, food and drink industries, paper and rubber-making industries. Simple lung, blood, spinal and skin checks can prevent complex and costly illness. 

We should be more alert and conscious of the things which we are being exposed to in our workplaces. Even the chair you sit on can kill you. We tend to over-spiritualise everything in this country. It’s always some old woman in your village trying to kill you when indeed it’s your ignorance which is slowly tying a noose around your neck. 

Which industry do you work in? Are you aware of the health hazards you face due to the substances you work with? Is your employer protecting you enough? Please do share in the comments below. 

P.S- Not all die be die wai! 😅

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