HAZCHEM Alert: understanding workplace accidents, incidents and dangerous events

Apr 2, 2019 Posted by Walter Ingles

This blog is about workplace ‘incidents’  — meaning an event which happens in the workplace and threatens the overall health and safety of people, property or the environment. Getting a clear understanding of the different categories of events which can occur at work (especially when they involve hazardous chemicals) can help you determine the best way of recording the details, investigating what happened and (if required) notifying the required agencies.

1. Workplace ‘accidents’

Let’s begin by being clear about the use of the word ‘accident’ in a workplace environment. Here at STOREMASTA we prefer the term ‘incident’, because referring to something as an ‘accident’ can  imply it was fate-controlled and had no attributable cause. Whereas the term ‘incident’ recognises that all deaths, injuries illnesses, spills, explosions etc are preventable occurrences with a clear chain of events that preceded.

We recommending not referring to incidents in the workplace as an ‘accident’. Using the term incident keeps you focused on prevention: establishing root causes, identifying corrective actions and introducing chemical control measures.

2. Notifiable workplace incidents

Businesses owners and operators must notify their work health and safety Regulator when certain incidents and dangerous events occur at work. These ‘notifiable incidents’ must be reported to the Regulator in your state immediately — and by the fastest possible means.

Deaths, injuries, and illnesses

Any death, injury or illness which occurs through the conduct of business is a notifiable incident. And this is not just incidents affecting direct employees of your organisation, but also contractors, bystanders and site visitors (customers, sales representatives, delivery drivers).

  • Fatalities - the death of a worker, site visitor or member of the public. Eg: a gas cylinder explodes, striking and killing a delivery driver waiting near their vehicle. NOT: a worker suffering a heart attack due to a pre-existing health condition.

  • Serious injuries - whenever someone is admitted to hospital due to a workplace injury — including medical treatment within 48 hours of exposure to a hazardous substance. Eg: a worker is sprayed with sodium hydroxide and suffers 2nd degree burns to 50% of their body. They are hospitalised for 2 weeks. NOT: a worker attending outpatients after being splashed in the eyes with cleaning chemicals.

  • Illnesses - there are also a number of illnesses that must be reported, check the current WHS Regulation for the full list as illnesses have microbial (not chemical) causes.

Dangerous Incident

The term ‘dangerous incident‘ is defined by the Australian WHS Regulations and refers to specific events that exposes people in the workplace (plus bystanders and members of the public) to serious health and safety risks. Even when these Dangerous Incidents have not actually caused a death or injury, they must be reported to the Regulator.

Notifiable Dangerous Incidents involving hazardous chemicals include:

  • Uncontrolled escape, spillage or leakage of a substance.

    For example: a loose coupling at a fuel transfer station causes a hose to disconnect, it sprays chemicals for a full 3 minutes before the flow can be halted. The site is shutdown for cleanup.

  • Uncontrolled implosion, explosion or fire.

    For example: a fire starts in the waste collection area and spreads over the worksite via discarded pallets, vegetation and trees growing nearby. Sparks reach within 20 metres of an outdoor flammable liquids store but the fire is brought under control before it can ignite.

  • Uncontrolled escape of gas or steam.

    For example: a cylinder of crude arsine gas starts to leak and covers the entire loading dock area with a grey/brown mist. All workers and contractors in the area are hospitalised.

  • Uncontrolled escape of a pressurised substance.

    For example: a gas cylinder of argon is knocked over and the valve breaks. Gas is rapidly released and the cylinder launches into the air, narrowly missing a passing worker and damaging a wall.

IMPORTANT: For the purpose of this blog we are only looking at incidents and events that involve hazardous chemicals. Always check the WHS Regulation in your state or territory for the full list of notifiable incidents.

3. Less serious workplace incidents

Less serious workplace incidents that involve hazardous chemicals should be recorded and investigated even if they do not need to be reported to the WHS Regulators. Investigating any workplace incident can expose chemical hazards that were never properly identifies as well as weaknesses in your operating procedures. At other times you might discover issues of non-compliance.

Here are some examples:

  • A container of acid spills onto a workbench. A lab technician is splashed but the liquid doesn’t penetrated their PPE and outer clothing. They safely remove their clothing without injury. You investigate the cause of the spill and determine the lid was not on the container. You schedule a meeting with the Lab Supervisor to discuss housekeeping procedures.

  • Three portable containers of an unknown substance are found on top of the corrosive cabinet without labels or any markings. The containers are isolated and the incident reported. Your investigation determines that contract cleaners left cleaning chemicals out from the night before. You follow up the breach with the supplier as labelling containers is a mandatory requirement under WHS Regulations.

You can’t investigate an incident if you don’t know it happened, so have a reporting system in place that makes it easy for workers to report any type of Dangerous Incident or near-miss. You’ll also want to give them the confidence that reporting the incident will bring welcome safety improvements to the worksite, not get people into trouble.

Next steps

When a HAZCHEM incident threatens the overall health and safety of people, property or the environment it should be investigated. Even near-misses and close calls. For more information about conducting an effective incident investigation download our free eBook Key Steps in a HAZCHEM Incident Investigation. Download and read it today by clicking on the image below:

Key Steps in a HAZCHEM Incident Investigation


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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