A minefield of risks: selecting safe materials

By some estimates, the average adult makes upward of 35,000 decisions a day. For most of us, many of these decisions are trivial and low risk, but for researchers and engineers working in chemical R&D, this couldn’t be further from the truth, explains Chris Cogswell, Customer Consultant at Elsevier

Throughout the working day, they are confronted by complex decisions with significant safety and regulatory implications, all the way from idea and concept generation to feasibility testing, scale-up and development.

To traverse this minefield of risks and make confident, accurate decisions, R&D professionals in the chemicals sector require relevant data on the safety, toxicology and regulatory status of prospective materials, as well as information on their properties and performance in different environments.

This is particularly important when choosing materials in the early stages of development, when, without a strong understanding of the implications of one material compared with another, problems may be introduced further down the line.

However, for the majority of organisations, this is not easily achieved. The data they require — a mixture of scientific, technical and commercial information — are typically not easily accessible in one place.

They are often spread across a number of databases, in different and complex formats, which makes achieving a holistic view of this information and identifying potential risks a significant challenge.

Gaining an early understanding

Decisions made in the early stages of the R&D process involve immense risk, which can manifest itself in successive stages of the chemical product lifecycle – from manufacturing and production to disposal.

Choosing a high-risk substance without understanding its implications could cause regulatory violations that could culminate in hefty fines. In the US Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) inspections of chemical facilities between October 2018 and September 2019, it issued fines totalling $2.6 million.

A significant majority of the total came from violations of the Process Safety Management of Highly Hazardous Chemicals regulation, costing chemical firms $682,636.

Owing to the gravity of the safety risk in the chemical industry, the US Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB) introduced new regulation in February 2020. The legislation opens all chemical firms up to investigation, necessitating any instance where a regulated or extremely hazardous substance causes death, serious injury or substantial property damage, be reported to the CSB within 8 hours.

To navigate this regulatory minefield and get ahead of these issues, firms need to be equipped with knowledge of a material’s properties, combined with information on how it is regulated in different states or countries across the world.

Putting safety and the environment at the forefront of R&D

Development of a chemical product should be determined by how a material may change during its lifecycle, and under what environmental circumstances; an understanding of what the safety implications of a material are is also essential.

Although a chemical substance may be stable at room temperature, it could become unstable when subjected to heat. Similarly, a substance that poses no danger on its own could create a volatile compound if combined with another substance; substances such as sodium or potassium phosphide, for example, can react vigorously with water to produce gases that are deadly at low airborne concentrations.

Chemical companies must ascertain whether a material is safe for consumers, employees, the environment and any machinery to be used, as well as for other partners used further along the development chain.

Typically, customer safety has been the primary concern and employee safety has been secondary, but safety risks encompass researchers, manufacturers and distributors, as well as consumers.

Additionally, regulatory boards will often limit substance use based on the safety and environmental impacts it can have. Researchers need to know early on if this is the case with their chosen substance, to avoid pursuing unfeasible research avenues.

Scale-up from development to production is only possible when adverse and potentially harmful consequences are mitigated. For this to happen, companies need access to information on the toxicological impacts of each chemical substance and the chemical’s performance in the environments in which they intend it to be used and disposed of.

Depending on those toxicological impacts, chemicals firms must be able to learn about and seek out alternative substances to alleviate risk. Growing concerns around sustainability have also made choosing materials or chemicals that can be recycled in an environmentally safe manner increasingly important, even prompting the industry to look for sustainable alternatives to "forever chemicals."

Embracing digital and data

Accurate and comprehensive data on materials are often the difference between a successful, scalable chemical product that goes to market and a hazardous compound that causes dangerous situations for consumers, customers, employees, the environment or a combination of the above.

Chemicals companies must ensure they are equipping R&D professionals with the right tools and solutions that afford access to data – enabling researchers and employees to find commercial and scientific data whenever they need it.

With relevant and actionable data at their fingertips, they can accurately forecast the safety and usability of each material, reducing financial risk and ensuring safety standards are met throughout the product lifecycle – maximising chances of commercial success.

By getting ahead of the potential problems outlined in this article, chemicals firms can ultimately avoid regulatory fines and use critical information to mitigate development risks.