Conducting an in-house risk assessment on your hazardous chemicals

Jan 14, 2019 Posted by Walter Ingles

Chemical hazards can be complex and it is not always certain how they can affect the health of your workers and the overall safety of the job site. This blog walks you through the chemical risk assessment process so you can conduct your own assessment of the hazardous chemicals used, handled, stored, or generated at your own workplace — in a way that complies with WHS Regulations.

Appointing the team

Appointing the right team is key to conducting an effective risk assessment. Though an individual manager or supervisor might be capable of carrying out a simple risk assessment, at larger worksites (or when chemical hazards are exacerbated by work processes that require Dangerous Goods like flammables and explosives) a small WHS committee or risk management team may be more effective.

Effective risk assessment requires:

  • An understanding of the WHS legislative framework in Australia including the Codes of Practice and Safety Standards that apply to chemical hazards at a workplace.

  • A working knowledge of the chemicals on the job site including the way they are used in individual work areas, where and how they are stored, and work processes that may generate hazardous chemicals and toxic waste materials.

  • A holistic knowledge of the entire job site including manufacturing processes, Dangerous Goods stores, and the way the site impacts its physical environment (eg adjacent waterways, agricultural lands, or native forests).

  • The ability to interpret the information on a chemical label and Safety Data Sheet including the chemical properties, hazard class, and precautionary statements.

  • The skills and resources to research known chemical hazards within your industry or manufacturing sector.

  • Communication skills that allow easy discussions and information sharing between manufacturers/suppliers of the chemicals as well as individual contractors and industry specialists.

  • Time and resources to inspect the workplace, examine records, consult suppliers, interview and observe staff in work areas.

  • Problem solving and logical thinking to identify obscure hazards; and foresee the way hazardous chemicals could impact the entire workplace.

  • Written communication and presentation skills to draw the information together in a logical sequence that presents an accurate assessment of the chemical exposure risks and hazards to decision makers.

IMPORTANT: A risk management team affords a balance of skills, experience and technical knowledge. A WHS Manager may have an excellent working knowledge of legislation and Australian Safety Standards but may not fully understand the way chemicals are used at individual work stations. Alternatively, manufacturing staff will have a greater idea of the immediate hazards on the production line, but may not understand how the job site impacts the environment or have access to workplace records and supplier networks.

Identifying the chemical hazards

Once you have appointed your risk assessment team, you’ll need to systematically identify each and every chemical hazard onsite. This will be a combination of:

  • Inspecting the job site - have the whole team physically walk around the job site noting the obvious chemical stores and holding areas, as well as the less obvious chemical hazards eg, diesel emissions, welding fume, wood dust. Create a master list of the names of each chemical, the location, and how they are being used/stored/handled/generated.

  • Collating Safety Data Sheets - obtain SDSs from the chemical manufacturer, supplier, or importer and collate them into a Register of Hazardous Chemicals. From each SDS note the hazard class (eg, corrosive, flammable gas) and any acute or chronic health effects they may present to workers (eg, allergies, acid burns, cancer).

  • Reviewing safety records and reports - review sick leave records, incident reports, and minutes of relevant meetings that may indicate recurring illnesses, chemical handling accidents, chemical spills, and equipment damage. This may bring to light chemical hazards missed in the site inspection.

  • Researching industry work practices and known chemical hazards - conduct independent research to gain a greater understanding of the way chemicals impact your own industry processes.

  • Consulting staff - listen to manufacturing staff, maintenance crews, trade contractors and other employees who directly use chemicals. They may raise previously unknown safety issues or unreported accidents and near-misses.

You’ll need to appoint someone on the team to compile all of this information into a meaningful list of chemical hazards that include the names of the chemicals, how they are used, and they ways they could impact the safety of the worksite. From here your risk assessment can be conducted.

Assessing the risks

The risk assessment itself is now an examination of each chemical hazard to determine the severity of the risk and what is currently being done to keep workers safe from harm. The risk assessment will determine if further action needs to be taken to control the risk and how urgently that action is required.

For each chemical hazard you’ll be identifying:

  • All dangerous events, accidents, illnesses, or injuries that could arise through using a chemical or having it stored on the worksite. This will also include chemicals generated through work processes (eg, wood dust, welding fume, sewerage). Eg, a gas bottle delivery driver who rolls the cylinders along the ground instead of using a forklift to deliver them. The bottles could explode or ignite.

  • The workers likely to be exposed to the chemicals: how often they use them; how long they use them for; the dilution/strength/toxicity of the chemicals; the suitability of PPE. Eg, an employee spray painting for 40 hours every week for 5 years, vs an employee who spray paints once per month.

  • The severity of each dangerous event (death, long term illness, acid burn, fire and property damage). Eg, an employee who uses a highly concentrated chlorine cleaner in a confined space could be overcome with fumes and asphyxiated. They could die.

  • How likely each dangerous event could occur: daily, weekly, once a month, once a year. Eg, gas bottle deliveries occur once per month OR the employee cleans the storeroom with concentrated chlorine bleach once a week.

Your risk assessment should also consider how other Dangerous Goods, incompatible substances, work processes, chemical stores (or lack of), housekeeping practices, and overall workplace hygiene could impact the each chemical hazard.

Next Steps

Assessing chemical hazards is the second step in our four step Risk Management methodology that ensures your workplace reaches 100% chemical safety compliance. This blog has been merely an introduction to the process and we encourage you to download our free eBook How to manage the risk of Hazardous Chemicals in the workplace to learn how risk assessment fits into a compliant Risk Management Plan. Download and read it today by clicking on the image below:

How to manage the risk of hazardous chemicals in the workplace

Walter Ingles

Walter Ingles Compliance Specialist

Walter is STOREMASTA’s Dangerous Goods Adviser. He loves helping businesses 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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