Hazardous Chemicals: helping workers understand their WHS responsibilities

Dec 27, 2018 Posted by Walter Ingles

Your workers have a duty to stay safe at work and not behave in a way that could affect either their own health and safety, or the health and safety of others. But the responsibility is two-fold, as workers must also be properly trained and supervised. This blog identifies the overall health and safety responsibilities of workers as outlined in the Work Health and Safety Act (particularly as they relate to chemical hazards). Use this article as a framework for your worksite safety policies, induction programs, and chemical hazard training.

Responsibilities of workers

The WHS Act in every state and territory in Australia has four essential requirements for workers/employees. These are:

  1. Take reasonable care for their own health and safety while at work.

  2. Make sure their behaviour and conduct does not place other people at risk.

  3. Comply with safety instructions from managers and supervisors.

  4. Co-operate with safety policies and operating procedures.

NOTE: Contractors and suppliers also have WHS duties and responsibilities as they relate to the tasks they are performing at your worksite.

Let’s have a look at a few hypothetical examples of non-compliance to give you an idea of how it works.

  1. A worker is decanting a corrosive cleaning agent and doesn’t bother to wear the PPE they have been issued and trained to wear. Failing to take care of their own health and safety.

  2. Suppliers delivering LPG cylinders throw the bottles over the side of the truck. Actions that place other people at risk. Not following rules and safety instructions.

  3. Against site rules explained in a safety induction, a contractor uses their mobile phone right in front of a petrol refilling station. Not complying with safety instructions.

  4. A worker leaves bottles of acetylene and oxygen connected on a trolley in the workshop overnight instead of disconnecting them and separating them for storage. Not following safe operating procedures.

In each of the four examples the worker, contractor or supplier has a clear WHS duty and responsibility but has failed to comply. WHS duties are legal responsibilities and non-compliance can be punishable by law.

Penalties for non-compliance

Apart from getting staff to understand that unsafe work practices can be fatal, your training efforts should remind workers of the significant fines and possible jail sentences for not complying with mandatory safety policies. Just failing to comply with WHS duties can result in a $50,000 fine; while reckless behaviour that places a co-worker, customer, or contractor at risk could see a worker fined up to $300,000 plus spending 5 years in jail.

The penalties for workers (and contractors too) who fail to meet their WHS responsibilities are listed in the table below:

Offense Fine Jail Term
Reckless behavior that exposes some to a risk of death, serious injury, or illness  $ 300, 000 5 years
failing to comply with a health and safety duty that exposes someone to a risk of death, serious injury, or illness  $ 150, 000 N/A
failing to comply with a health and safety duty  $ 50, 000 N/A


NOTE: The fines displayed above relate to workers and contractors that have a WHS responsibility. Corporations, business owners, directors and officers face much steeper penalties.

Chemical safety training

A bit like the saying ’it’s a journey not a destination’, consider your safety training never fully completed. Laws change, new chemicals are introduced to the job site, and staff can slacken off when not properly motivated or supervised. Adequate safety training will include a combination of the following:

1. Induction Training

Induction training covers the safety rules of the site and ensures that staff and contractors have a clear understanding of their WHS responsibilities. Your safety inductions should introduce the chemical hazards present on the site, banned substances and ignition sources; as well as the type of PPE  to be used or worn.

2. Job Specific Training

This type of training is specific to the employee and the actual job they will be doing. Usually conducted one-on-one or in small groups employees learn about:

  • Chemical Hazards: eg, how to safely handle the chemicals they use; ignition sources; flashpoint of flammable liquids; incompatible substances; reactive chemicals.

  • Safety Data Sheets (SDS): what they are, how to understand them, where they are, how to use the register of hazardous chemicals.

  • Personal Protective Equipment (PPE): what they need and how it protects them from the chemicals they use, how to fit it properly, where to find it, how to keep it clean, where to store it, what to do if it’s damaged.

  • Safety Procedures: eg, keeping gas cylinders upright and restrained on a gas bottle trolley; wearing thermal gloves when disconnecting LPG cylinders; labeling chemicals dispensed into portable containers; correctly bonding fuel nozzles and dispensing equipment to prevent static electricity.

3. Toolbox Talks

A ‘toolbox talk’ is a short, informal meeting usually held at the beginning of a shift. Toolbox talks  are an excellent way of refreshing your workers’ knowledge of chemical hazards, as well as performing last minute safety checks (eg, everyone has their eye guards, chemical exposure levels are good). It’s also an opportunity for experienced workers to exchange information and remind newer staff of their WHS responsibilities.

4. Emergency Responses and Drills

Staff need to know what to do in a chemical emergency; including the exact location of emergency showers, eye wash stations, and first aid kits plus know how to use them. Staff should undertake regular drills where they are actually using the equipment in a simulated emergency — both on themselves or applying treatment to co-workers.

Next steps

Do you need assistance managing the chemical hazards at your workplace and ensuring that staff have a complete understanding of their WHS responsibilities? Why not download our free eBook How to manage the risk of Hazardous Chemicals in the workplace. You can download it now 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 Storage Specialist. He helps organisations reduce risk and improve efficiencies in the storage and management of dangerous goods and hazardous chemicals.

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