Using chemicals has allowed humanity to improve work processes and manufacture innovative products and technologies that would unlikely be achieved without them. But chemicals are often flammable, toxic, corrosive, and combustible; creating workplace and environmental hazards that must be managed and controlled. This blog is all about chemical hazards: what they are and how we can minimise their potential for harm.
What are chemical hazards?
A chemical hazard is simply the risks involved with using a chemical. So in the workplace chemical hazards can be;
Health hazards - where workers and other personnel are exposed to hazardous chemicals through inhalation, absorption through the skin, or ingestion and swallowing. Chemical health hazards can be acute (nausea, vomiting, acid burns, asphyxiation — which happen immediately) or chronic (dermatitis, asthma, liver damage, cancer — which develop after prolonged exposure).
TIP: learn more about chemical health hazards by reading our post Using Poisons and Solvents at Work.
Physiochemical hazards - where workers, the workplace itself, AND the environment can all be damaged or harmed because of the physical nature of the chemical. These hazards surround a chemical’s physical attributes (think flammables, explosives, corrosives, self-reactive) and the way they are handled and stored.
TIP: learn more about physiochemical hazards by reading our post Understanding Chemicals in the Workplace.
Examples of common chemical hazards
Fires and explosions
Many hazardous chemicals are flammable and can quickly cause a serious fire or explosion. Chemical hazards exist when flammables are used and stored in areas where people are smoking or work operations create sparks and considerable heat.
Fires and explosions also occur when containers are mishandled or dropped. Because flammable and explosive chemicals are often contained in large cylinders and drums it is essential train warehouse staff and forklift drivers to take care when receiving and moving chemicals about the workplace.
REMEMBER: chemicals often have both health hazards as well as physiochemical hazards. So if a cylinder of a hazardous chemical is accidentally severed (then catches fire and explodes) workers and emergency responders may have to deal with the health hazards associated with exposure to the chemical as well as the fire.
Many chemicals react violently when they contact other substances and must be used and stored very carefully. Reactions can occur just from exposure to heat, sunlight, and water.
Chemical hazards also exist in the way certain chemicals are mixed. Sometime the order in which a substance is introduced to a mix or even the speed at which it is added (think mixing a solvent) can create a dangerous reaction.
An extension of a chemical hazard is when staff don’t understand the nature of the chemicals they use or what to do in an emergency. A tragic example of this happened in Ireland a few years ago when two chemists were mixing chemicals and one made an error in the process. Realising the mistake both chemists ran out of the control room to shut down the experiment, and actually ran into an explosion. One worker was killed.
REMEMBER: controlling chemical hazards involves creating safe operating procedures. And also making sure staff understand the nature of all the chemicals they handle, are fully trained how to use them, and know what to do in an emergency.
Many chemicals are hazardous to the environment. This can be in the form of gas and heat emissions released into the air; toxins seeping into landfill and waterways; or damage caused by fires, explosions and chemical reactions which spread outside the worksite.
Many of the health hazards that effect humans also affect plants, wildlife and microorganisms, often damaging or destroying entire ecosystems.
REMEMBER: your WHS obligations extend to the surrounding environment, so your chemical management plan should also assess and control the risks to the environment.
Controlling Hazards in the workplace
The best way to control chemical hazards at your workplace is to develop a consistent chemical management procedure. This probably sounds overwhelming, but if you break it down into 4 key steps and follow those steps consistently you will be able to control the risks and hazards associated with all the chemicals you use at your workplace.
The four key steps to a Chemical Management Procedure are;
Step 1: Identify
Clearly identify each chemical you use in your workplace, and gain an understanding of both their health hazards and physiochemical hazards.
Step 2: Assess
Conduct a risk assessment on each of the hazardous chemicals (think how they are received, dispensed, used and stored). Take into consideration what accidents or hazardous events could occur and the possible consequences.
Step 3: Control
Using the Hierarchy of Controls, introduce changes in the workplace to eliminate or minimise exposure to the hazard.
Step 4: Sustain
Have a system in place to review all your control measures as well as identify, assess and control any new chemicals that are introduced to the workplace.
TIP: if you don’t have the resources to develop you own Chemical Management Procedure why not use ours? Download our free eBook How to manage the risk of Hazardous Chemicals in the workplace to learn all about it.
Storing hazardous chemicals safely
An essential part of a Chemical Management Plan is ensuring your workplace has safe chemical storage areas and safety cabinets suited to each substance. This could include;
- Flammable cabinets
- Acid storage cabinets
- Corrosive cabinets
- Dangerous goods containers
- Pesticide storage cabinets
- Gas bottle cages
- PPE cabinets
These cabinets should be located in well ventilated areas either indoors or outdoors. Ventilation is a major factor when storing hazardous chemicals and your risk assessment (considering the physiochemical hazards of each substance) will determine whether your chemical stores are located indoors or outdoors.
Chemical safety cabinets are also a recommended because they are constructed from compatible materials and display all the mandatory placards and signage.
If you’re serious about managing the chemical hazards at your workplace, we encourage you to download our free eBook How to manage the risk of Hazardous Chemicals in the workplace. You’ll learn how to implement your own Chemical Management Procedure as well as improve the overall safety at your workplace.