This article focuses on four key areas of chemical safety in the workplace. It will help you meet your obligations under WHS legislation in Australia, as well as guide your overall approach to safety at your workplace. Let’s get started.
1. Understand the chemicals you are using
The first and most critical aspect of using chemicals safely is to understand exactly what you are dealing with. To do this you’ll need the Safety Data Sheet (SDS) which the chemical supplier must provide with each and every hazardous substance.
Whenever you start using a new chemical at your workplace, it’s a good practice to obtain the SDS from the supplier before it arrives onsite. This gives you time to review the hazards and make any necessary changes to work design; things like buying new protective clothing for workers, or installing a new gas cylinder storage cage.
From the SDS you will learn the properties of the chemical as well as the risks and hazards when using it. You should study the SDS carefully because chemicals often have more than one hazard — meaning they could be toxic if inhaled and also a combustible. And having a full understanding of any chemical means knowing if it is flammable; incompatible with certain substances; or able to cause an explosion when in contact with heat.
When you know exactly what you are dealing with, you can …
- buy the protective equipment and safety clothes you need
- design the physical areas of the workplace to safely accommodate the chemical
- develop safe operating procedures and work methods
- store the chemical safely, away from anything that might cause a reaction
- label the chemical with correct Dangerous Goods signage
And once you know the full extent of the risks and hazards to using a hazardous chemical, you might even decide to just use something else — and substitute a chemical that is a whole lot safer.
REMEMBER: only use the SDS prepared by the manufacturer or importer of the hazardous substance. Do not rely on generic or third party SDS’s
2. Provide the correct PPE
Once you understand the dangerous properties of a chemical, you can buy the necessary PPE. PPE is personal protective equipment which prevents the chemical contacting a worker’s eyes, skin, airways, or even their whole body.
The SDS will specify any PPE required for …
- personal hygiene (washing hands, coveralls, aprons)
- skin protection (chemical resistant gloves, rubber boots)
- eye protection (eye guards, goggles,)
- respiratory protection (air supplied hoods, face masks)
- thermal protection (flame resistant body suit)
… as well as any safety showers, eyewash stations or specialised first aid equipment that need to be available at the work station.
REMEMBER: PPE should always be considered as a last resort for controlling any risk, so it’s best to find ways for workers not to contact the chemical at all.
3. Store chemicals safely
Many chemicals react violently when put in contact with other substances; causing fires, explosions and toxic gas clouds. You must ensure that any hazardous chemicals used at your worksite are stored safely and in a way that complies with Australian WHS legislation.
Start with the SDS, it will have a section that details how the chemical should be stored as well as any incompatible substances that should be kept separate. Some general tips for all workplaces …
- store chemicals away from food preparation and service areas
- keep chemicals secured so they cannot be accessed by unauthorised staff or contractors
- clearly label each chemical with the correct placard and warning sign
- make sure the storage area is well ventilated and away from work activities that might cause heat or sparks
- use a dedicated safety cabinet, manufactured specifically for the chemicals on site
- make sure portable containers of cleaning chemicals are secured when not being used
REMEMBER: You should also refer to the WHS Regulation in your state and make sure you meet all the requirements for the handling and storage of Dangerous Goods.
4. Train staff thoroughly
When hazardous chemicals are used at a workplace, it’s not enough to just provide staff with PPE and safety clothes. Every staff member who is at risk of being harmed by a chemical must understand the risks and hazards and how they personally could be impacted. This includes office and administration staff who may need to wear PPE when visiting manufacturing areas of the worksite or know how to respond to a chemical explosion and emergency situation.
New staff and contractors should undergo a thorough safety induction before commencing any duties, as well as receive ongoing job specific training. Staff and contractors should know …
- the risks and hazards of a chemical that might affect their safety
- fire and chemical emergency training, including evacuation procedures
- what to do if they are accidentally exposed to a chemical (safety shower, first aid)
- how to respond to a co-worker who has been exposed (stay safe, buddy system, first aid, notify emergency services)
- how to safely handle a chemical (dispensing methods, cleaning storage areas, disposing of containers, earthing containers and maintenance equipment)
- how to correctly store a chemical (what containers to use, labeling and signage, who is authorised to access chemical stores, work activities prohibited in the immediate area)
REMEMBER: If there is a risk of chemical exposure to temporary visitors at your worksite, limit their access to operational areas. You should also consider what training they may need if contacting work areas is unavoidable.
This article has introduced some key elements of risk management when using hazardous chemicals in the workplace. But if you’re serious about getting it right — making your workplace safer and complying with the WHS legislation in your state. We encourage you to download and read our free eBook How to manage the risk of Hazardous Chemicals in the workplace.
Our FREE eBook is easy to read and contains the action plan and templates you need to you meet your WHS obligations. It’s the next step in chemical safety and it can be downloaded by clicking on the image below: