Here’s a quick outline of 5 common hazardous substances we use at work (and at home). We give a few scary examples of how deadly these chemicals can be, as well as our best tips for handling them safely.

PS: don’t forget to download our free eBook How to manage the risk of Hazardous Chemicals in the workplace to make sure you’re fulfilling all your WHS obligations. 

How to manage the risk of Hazardous Chemicals in the workplace

1. Petrol (gasoline)

In 2015 a worker died at a Queensland recycling and waste facility while using a heat gun to repair a pump. A tanker arrived with a load of water contaminated with unleaded petrol, which subsequently caught fire.

Petrol is a dangerous substance. It’s highly flammable and harmful to our health, potentially causing damage to skin and eyes, as well as dizziness, respiratory problems, lung damage and cancer. But it’s used in workplaces everywhere, and maybe because we put it in our cars and lawn mowers every day we forget just how dangerous it really is.

Handling and storing petrol safely is essential. It must be clearly marked as a flammable liquid and stored in a cool, well-ventilated area in specifically designed containers. Vapours from petrol can quickly cause a fire or explosion so dispensing areas must be strictly designated as NO SMOKING and away from heat and other ignition sources.

Remember: petrol residue on cleaning rags and empty containers is still highly flammable, so use extra caution when cleaning petrol storage and handling areas.

2. Acetone

A customer at a nail salon received burns to 40% of her body when a dish of nail polish remover (acetone) caught fire. Apparently the customer was having her acrylic nails soaked off and the liquid chemical was being heated to make it work faster.

Acetone is used in workplaces everywhere. It’s the key ingredient in nail polish remover, paint thinners, enamels, and resins. Acetone is highly flammable dangerous good which must be used and stored away from heat, sparks, flame and build-up of static electricity. It should also be kept away from flammable gases and oxidisers.

Acetone is an irritant to our skin and eyes. Vapours ingested by the body can cause immediate headache, dizziness, drowsiness, blurred vision, and fatigue while long term exposure can lead to liver and organ damage.

Remember: static electricity can ignite acetone so containers must be earthed when agitating or transferring the substance.

3. Ammonia

In Africa in 1992 a tanker truck was being filled with liquid ammonia. Workers attempted to place 22.2 tonnes of ammonia into a 17.7 tonne capacity tank when the tank broke where a welding repair had been carried out 2 years earlier. A massive explosion occurred, 129 people died and another 1,150 injured. Some victims were burned directly by the ammonia and others poisoned by vapours. Other victims developed lesions and a fatal pulmonary oedema just a few days later. This terrible accident, while unlikely to occur in Australia in 2018, does sadly demonstrate the real dangers of ammonia.

Ammonia is one of the world’s most commonly used industrial chemicals and cleaning agents. It’s also highly flammable, corrosive and toxic to the our human bodies. Exposure to ammonia causes immediate burning to the eyes, nose and throat. It can lead to blindness, lung damage and death.

Ammonia needs to be stored and handled outdoors or in a well ventilated area, possibly with custom designed ducting and hoods (depending on the level of usage). It must be kept away from ignition sources, heat, sunlight and oxidisers.

Workers who handle ammonia should be well trained in emergency procedures in the case of accidental splashes, spillage or release. Full coverage PPE should be worn: chemical goggles and face shield; PVC gauntlet gloves, jacket and trousers.

Remember: when opening container valves or connecting and disconnecting ammonia lines workers should wear air supplied, full face masks.

4. Hydrogen Peroxide

Several years ago in the USA a drum of hydrogen peroxide leaked onto the wooden pallet where it was being stored and caused a spontaneous fire. The fire then spread to other chemical drums, eventually causing a major incident which destroyed a warehouse and seriously injured a fire fighter.

Hydrogen peroxide is a commonly used bleaching agent and antiseptic. We use it to bleach our hair and teeth but in factories it’s used to bleach paper, sterilise machines, and produce printed circuit boards.

Even though hydrogen peroxide can be used in food preparation areas and is not itself flammable, it is still a dangerous good and capable of causing fires when in contact with other flammable substances. Remember the warehouse fire above? So it must be used and stored away from excessive heat, direct sunlight, static discharges and high temperatures.

Hydrogen peroxide is a corrosive so it can cause irreversible eye damage; caustic burns to nose throat and lungs; as well as blistering, bleeding and damage to the respiratory tract and stomach. Workers should use it in well ventilated areas and wear appropriate PPE.

Remember: workers using hydrogen peroxide should not wear leather boots as they can catch fire within minutes of contact with peroxide.

5. Chlorine

When an unlabelled tank of chlorine gas was delivered to a steel recycling plant in the USA (2015), workers had no idea what was inside when they crushed it for scrap metal. A cloud of corrosive chlorine gas was released and eight workers suffered critical injuries. One sadly died.

Chlorine is used in factories and swimming pools, it even keeps our drinking water safe and clean. But chlorine is also a dangerous, corrosive gas and must be handled and stored carefully. Chlorine must be kept in a cool place (preferably below 30°C) in tightly closed containers. The containers and surrounding areas should be well ventilated and kept away from acids, reducing agents, zinc, tin, aluminium and their alloys, readily oxidised materials.

When exposed to chlorine, people experience pain and burns to nasal membranes; they at a high risk of developing acute pulmonary oedema. On the skin chlorine causes moderate to severe burns with ulceration and is capable of penetrating deep layers of tissue.

Worker’s eyes must be completely protected by splash resistant goggles with face shield. All surrounding skin areas must be covered. Emergency eye wash facilities must also be available nearby.

Remember: clearly labeling dangerous goods and holding containers is essential (even when they leave your worksite).

Next Steps

Now you’ve read our quick article about these 5 hazardous substances, we strongly encourage you to download our free eBook How to manage the risk of Hazardous Chemicals in the workplace. It’s an easy-to-read eBook to help you fulfil your safety obligations as an employer in Australia. To help keep your workers safe, download our eBook by clicking on the image below.

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