Most chemicals create multiple hazards when used or carried at a workplace. A common substance like petrol is widely known to be highly flammable and able to ignite very easily, but petrol is also carcinogenic, irritating to the skin, able to cause heritable genetic damage, as well as being toxic to aquatic organisms. How do you manage all those hazards?
To fully understand the impact of the hazardous chemicals present at your workplace, we recommend conducting a risk assessment which identifies each chemical hazard and then evaluates the way the chemicals are used or interact with work processes, other materials and substances. This blog will help you understand the 7 essential steps of the risk assessment process and get you one step closer to 100% chemical safety compliance.
Step 1: appoint a chemical risk assessment team
Your first step is to decide who will actually carry out the risk assessment. The process requires a range of skills and specialised knowledge and it is unlikely that any single person in your organisation will possess all of them. Your team will be most effective with representatives who (collectively) have:
- An understanding of WHS compliance including the ability to read and interpret Safety Data Sheets (SDS).
- Working knowledge of the full job site and the integrations of departmental areas.
- Practical experience with the hazardous chemicals at the job site.
- Time to inspect work areas, participate in team meetings, and research individual hazards.
- Administrative skills to create and prepare reports and auditing tools.
Step 2: segment the workplace
In most workplaces chemicals are used in just about every department, so once your team is assembled your next step is to find a practical way to break down the assessment into manageable groups. Examples include:
- Departments - assessing chemical hazards within departmental areas (eg, production floor, raw material intake, despatch warehouse, laboratory, maintenance).
- Work groups - evaluating chemical hazards as they impact groups of workers (eg, the same job tasks: welders, the same shifts: night crew).
- Chemical types - risk assessments can be conducted based on hazard classes (all the flammable liquids) or in storage areas (bulk stores, packaged chemical stores, indoor safety cabinets).
For each area you might create an inspection checklist or auditing document to assist when identifying each chemical hazard.
Step 3: identify each substance and how it is being used
In step 3 your team will be conducting a walk-around and recording the details of each hazardous chemical in the area. You should note the details of each chemical: product name, quantity being used, the container and capacity etc, and then how it is being used.
SIMPLE EXAMPLE: unleaded petrol used in the ride-on lawnmower.
- Up to 9 litres of unleaded fuel in the mower itself.
- 10 litre polyethylene jerrycan with attached pourer (filled at the local service station).
- Mower refuelled by outdoor crew hand-pouring into mower.
- Jerrycan stored in an outdoor tool shed, unlocked.
Step 4: assess the physiochemical hazards
Next look into the physical hazards presented by the chemicals. If a chemical can burn, ignite or sustain a fire, explode, react dangerously, or asphyxiate a worker it is considered a physical hazard. Check the chemical’s safety data sheets for it’s known physical hazards.
If we look again at our example of the unleaded petrol and the ride-on mower we might assess.
- Is there any way the mower itself could catch fire or explode? Where is it kept when not being used? It is being maintained according to the manufacturer’s instructions? Is the fuel tank periodically inspected? Is the cap always in place?
- Is there any risk of a fire or explosion while the jerrycan is being taken to the local service station and refilled? Carried to the service ute? Left in the ute? Unrestrained while in the ute? Practices while refilling? Excess fuel spilled over the container and not cleaned?
- How about when the mower itself is being refuelled? Could petrol spill onto the ground and cause an environmental hazard? Are ignition sources or heat present where the mower is refuelled.
- Finally look at how the jerrycan is being stored. Is there enough ventilation in the shed? Are there incompatible hazard classes or combustible materials there also? Who has access to the shed? Is it in the direct path of the sun?
Step 5: assess the risks to human and environmental health
Your risk assessment will also look at the ways the chemicals could harm the health of workers and any other person who might be exposed. Health hazards are listed on the product label and in more detail on the Safety Data Sheet.
Returning again to our example:
- What health hazards exist while the mower is being operated? Breathing exhaust fumes?
- How could a worker be exposed to a health risk while refilling the jerrycan at the service station? Inhaling mist or vapours, ingesting or swallowing fuel? Having fuel splashed on the skin?
- What health hazards occur when the fuel tank of the mower is being filled? Are there also environmental hazards if the fuel spills onto the ground?
- Do additional health risks exist in the the storage area (spills, ventilation, leaks, dropping and breaking the jerrycan?)
In this step you will also consider the actual workers who have contact with the fuel, what PPE they use, whether they have pre-existing health ailments/allergies, over what period of time they are exposed. You’ll need to determine if they are also at risk of developing a chronic condition (eg cancer or dermatitis).
Step 6: determine the level of risk
Step 6 estimates the level of risk created by each chemical hazard. You’ll be looking at two key areas: (1) the potential outcome of each chemical hazard and (2) the likelihood of that actually occurring.
From out example you might determine that:
- Unleaded petrol exhaust could be carcinogenic if continuously inhaled by workers. But the ride-on mower is only used once per week for two hours, the mower is used outside where there are no other emissions, workers wear masks, rosters are rotated regularly. The health risk is extremely low.
- Workers could inhale mists and vapours while refuelling the mower. Even though the mower is only refuelled once per week, the worker who carries out this task is exposed to a number of other substances each day. That worker has a high risk of developing an ailment from the combination of fumes.
- The tool shed where the fuel is stored also carries a number of combustible items, as well as corrosive cleaning chemicals. Anyone can access this area as the shed is unlocked. You flag this as a high risk area for fire.
PLEASE NOTE: In this blog we’ve used a simple example to demonstrate the risk assessment process. It is not intended to represent a complex worksite or actual levels of risk.
Step 7: prioritise the hazards for control measures
The last step in the risk assessment is to create an action plan to control each hazard. Priority is given to the hazards that present the highest level of risk (ie, the ones with the worst outcomes and the most likely to occur).
To achieve 100% chemical safety compliance, your risk assessment should be carried out within the structure of a 4-STEP risk management methodology. Download our free eBook How to manage the risk of Hazardous Chemicals in the workplace for a complete description of the STOREMASTA methodology IDENTIFY - ASSESS - CONTROL - SUSTAIN — as well as practical instructions for assessing the level of chemical risk currently at your business.