The handling of chemicals in the workplace presents a significant risk to employee health if they do not handle them correctly. While operating a business, you have specific duties under the model WHS Regulations to manage the risks to health and safety associated with using, handling, generating and storing hazardous chemicals. Safe Work Australia has prepared a Code of Practice to guide business on managing the risks of hazardous chemicals. For this article, we summarise the main points to guide you in the safe handling of chemicals in your workplace.
What Do You Need To Do?
The handling of chemicals in your workplaces is a high-risk task for your employees, and there are seven steps you should take.
- Find out what dangerous substances are in your workplace and what the risks are. You can do this by identifying all the chemicals that are or are likely to be used, handled, stored or generated at your workplace. Look at the label or safety data sheet to determine the ingredients. Remember also to include processes that produce hazardous chemicals as by-products or waste (e.g. fumes, gasses and dust).
- Put control measures in place to either remove those risks or, where this is not possible, control them to ensure the safest handling of chemicals in your workplace. Refer to the safety hierarchy of controls and use the highest level control that is reasonably practical.
- Where possible, swap out hazardous chemicals for substances with lower toxicity.
- When handling chemicals, always wear personal protective equipment including gloves, safety glasses and breathing apparatus.
- Ensure first aid and eyewash stations are made available. Clean up any spills and dispose of waste in the appropriate bins. In the event of a large spill, contact emergency authorities immediately.
- Prepare plans and procedures to deal with accidents, incidents and emergencies involving dangerous substances. Ensure firefighting and emergency equipment is maintained and available to deal with a large scale chemical spill or a fire or explosion due to the build-up of gasses from hazardous chemicals.
- Make sure your employees are adequately informed and trained in the safe handling chemicals and control or deal with the risks from the dangerous substances.
See our article, How Does the Hierarchy of Controls Mitigate Workplace Hazards?
What Questions Should You Ask?
When assessing the risks of handling chemicals in your workplace, there are several questions you should ask, including:
- What are the routes of exposure? You need to determine if the hazardous substance be inhaled, ingested or absorbed through the skin.
- Is there good natural air movement in and around where the chemicals are stored and used? If not, you may have to consider mechanical air changes. Proper ventilation will mean that any vapours given off from a spill, leak, or release will rapidly disperse.
- What are the chemical and physical properties of the substance? Substances may not be highly hazardous until their properties change, for example, until the chemical reaches a boiling point (oil).
- Who could be exposed, when might this occur and how often and long could the exposure be? Find out which work activities involve routine and frequent exposure to hazardous chemicals (for example, daily exposure, including during end-of-shift cleaning) and who are the people performing these activities. You should consider all people at the workplace, including those who may not be directly involved in using, handling, storing or generating a hazardous chemical.
- If there is a spill, will it be contained and prevented from spreading? Consider what will happen if the liquid spills out of the bunded storage unit.
The handling of chemicals is a high-risk activity, and any exposure to your employees may come under the scrutiny of industrial manslaughter laws present in most Australian states.
See our article, How to Adhere to Industrial Manslaughter Laws.
What is the Risk of a Fire Emergency?
Hazardous chemicals and substances are at risk of igniting and creating a more significant problem as well as fumes and smoke. When assessing the risks of handling chemicals in your workplace, consider these questions about their fire risk.
- Have all the obvious ignition sources been removed from the storage and handling areas? Ignition source can vary and include: sparks from electrical equipment, welding or cutting tools, hot surfaces, open flames, static charge, etc. if you fail to earth them, you can even cause an explosion by the simple action of decanting a flammable liquid from one container to another.
- Are your flammable substances kept in the correct type of storage unit? Check the distance from the unit to occupied buildings, boundaries, process units, flammable liquid storage tanks and sources of ignition. Always store hazardous chemicals separately to lower the risk of a fire incident.
- Can you replace a flammable substance for a less flammable one, or can you eliminate it from the process entirely? Processes and products evolve, check with your supplier to see if they have alternatives, including a non-flammable one; and research the possibility of redesigning your process to make it safer.
See our article, 8 Workplace Hazards That Can Kill.
What Information and Training Should You Provide to Your Employees?
Under your obligations as a business, you must provide information and training for your employees on how to work safely. When they use, handle, generate or store chemicals and hazardous substances, you are required to provide specific training. Safe Work Australia advises that the information, training and instruction should include the following:
- The nature of the hazardous chemicals involved and the risks to the employee
- The control measures implemented, and how to use and maintain them correctly
- The arrangements in place to deal with emergencies, including evacuation procedures, containing and cleaning up spills and first aid instructions
- The selection, use, maintenance and storage of any PPE required to control risks, and the limitations of the PPE
- The health monitoring that may be required and the worker’s rights and obligations
- Labelling of containers of hazardous chemicals, and the information that each part of the label provides and why it is important
- The availability of SDS for all hazardous chemicals, how to access the SDS, and the information that each part of the SDS provides, and
- The work practices and procedures they need to follow in the use, handling, processing, storage, transportation, cleaning up and disposal of hazardous chemicals.
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Handling chemicals is a high-risk activity that, when poorly done, can result in exposure, injury and large scale emergencies. Because of the risk of working with chemicals, a business must ensure that employees are informed and trained about safe handling. Safe Work Australia has prepared a Code of Practice to guide business on managing the risks of hazardous chemicals in the workplace. Reading labels and safety data sheets is the first step to the safe handling of chemicals. Eliminating chemicals where possible or substituting for less toxic substances helps to reduce the risk. You must inform and train employees in the safe use and handling of chemicals in your workplace.