How to work safely with hazardous chemicals
Jul 9, 2018

How to work safely with hazardous chemicals

Walter Ingles Walter Ingles

Chemicals are a major part of our post-modern lives. In fact many of the comforts and technologies that make our lives easier and more efficient are only available to us because of hazardous chemicals. This blog is all about how to safely work with hazardous chemicals: correctly identifying substances we use, choosing the right PPE, and creating a safe work environment.  Let’s start with correct identification. It’s important.

Identify the hazardous chemical

We can’t stress enough how important it is to correctly identify each and every hazardous chemical that is used, stored or handled at your workplace. To work safely with chemicals, you need to know exactly what they are, and have a full understanding of their dangerous properties.

Do you understand the toxicity and health hazards associated with all the chemicals on your work site? Do you know which chemicals are flammable, combustible, or corrosive? Do you know if any of your chemicals react with sunlight, heat or water? If you don’t, you need to get the Safety Data Sheet (SDS) from the manufacturer or supplier and read it carefully.

The SDS will clearly specify:

  • The name of the chemical
  • What it’s made from and the other chemical compounds it contains
  • Health hazards and toxicology
  • Dangerous properties like flammability or carcinogenicity
  • Precautions for safe handling
  • Engineering controls
  • Conditions for safe storage
  • First aid treatment
  • Firefighting and emergency measures
  • Incompatible materials
  • Whether it’s self-reactive

Using the recommendations for engineering controls, handling procedures, and safe storage conditions specified on the SDS, you can start implementing some risk control measures into your workplace.

REMEMBER: we’ve used a generic SDS in our example below, but do not use generic or Safety Data Sheets (SDSs) at your workplace. Variations in manufacturing and production can change the properties of the chemical and create new hazards.**

Create a safe working environment

Creating a safe working environment is the result of conducting a thorough risk assessment on each of the chemicals you identified. As an example, let’s imagine your workplace regularly uses a cleaning solvent made up of a mix of toluene and methylated spirits. It arrives in large drums and must be dispensed into smaller containers before it can be used in the workshop. How could you create a safe working environment for employees using the cleaning solvent?

Would it help to know about a US worker that died after being severely burned? He was dispensing a flammable solvent from a plastic bucket into a metal drum and the solvent ignited from static electricity.

Now here are some (not all) of the measures recommended by a generic** SDS for cleaning solvent:

  • Highly flammable liquid. May form flammable mixtures with air. All potential sources of ignition (open flames, pilot lights, furnaces, spark producing switches and electrical equipment etc.) must be eliminated both in and near the work area. Do NOT smoke.
  • Eye wash stations and safety showers should be easily accessible.
  • Ensure ventilation is adequate to maintain air concentrations below exposure standards.
  • Keep containers closed when not in use.
  • Avoid eye and skin contact.
  • Use long sleeved chemical resistant overalls, fastened at neck and wrists
  • Incompatible with oxidising agents

You’ll need to work through each of the measures recommended by the SDS, using them as the foundation for your risk control measures. Remember the SDS is only the starting point because you need to relate each of the hazards back to your own workplace.

Thinking now. Where at your workplace could the cleaning solvent be dispensed safely? It will need to be somewhere well ventilated and completely isolated from all possible ignitions sources including oxidisers, mechanical processes and electronic equipment. The chemical handling and dispensing area will also need to be accessible to eye wash fountains and safety showers. Do you have them already? They’ll need to be installed.

As you work through the recommendations on the SDS and complete your risk assessment, you may need to:

  • alter the layout of your workplace,
  • change the location of chemical handling areas
  • install eye wash stations and safety showers
  • issue new operating procedures and job methods
  • purchase additional PPE.

TIP: keeping hazardous chemicals secured in specifically designed safety cabinets (flammable cabinet, corrosive cabinet etc) segregates incompatible substances and keeps your workplace safer.

Use the correct Personal Protective Equipment

Every year, many preventable workplace injuries, incidents and deaths occur simply because workers did not use their PPE correctly. A worker standing on top of a truck takes off his PPE too early and falls to his death after being overcome by toxic fumes. Two contractors are burned by sulphuric acid when they take off their full body suits in the emergency shower. A cleaner uses a garden sprayer and household rubber gloves instead of proper PPE to dispense a corrosive cleaner, she dies from chemical exposure.

Sure Personal Protective Equipment can protect you against chemical hazards but (as these terrible incidents show) it won’t if it is not:

  • CORRECT - check the Safety Data Sheet (SDS) for the recommended PPE and ensure cheaper substitutes are not used instead. Example: using the recommended chemical resistant body protection and NOT household rubber gloves.
  • CURRENT - make sure the PPE is properly cleaned and maintained, does not extend past its use-by-date, and is regularly replaced. Remember that PPE doesn’t last forever and even what seems like minimal wear and tear could cost someone their eyesight or their life.
  • CONTROLLED - supervise you staff and train them. Make sure they know how to use their PPE and where to find it. They should also know how (and when) to safely put it on, take it off, and wash it down.

The workplace accidents described above are real, and might have been prevented if the workers were just using their PPE correctly. Here at STOREMASTA we take our role as safety consultants seriously, and are committed to helping workplaces all over Australia reach greater standards of chemical safety.

REMEMBER: as a chemical hazard control measure, PPE cannot be used on it’s own. Your workplace must also use adjacent engineering or administrative controls to keep people safe.

Next steps

If you’re serious about handling and storing chemicals safely we encourage you to download our FREE eBook How to manage the risk of Hazardous Chemicals in the workplace. We introduce you to the risk management process and give you a step-by-step action plan to control the chemicals hazards at your work sites. Download this eBook and read it today by clicking on the image below:

How to manage the risk of hazardous chemicals in the workplace

Walter is STOREMASTA’s Dangerous Goods Adviser. He loves helping business reduce the risk that Dangerous Goods pose upon their employees, property and the environment through safe and compliant dangerous goods storage solutions.

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