How to identify chemicals which are hazardous

Dec 21, 2018 Posted by Walter Ingles

In order to manage the risks surrounding hazardous chemicals at your workplace, you must first identify all the chemicals that could possibly be used, stored, handled, or generated in any of your work areas or job sites. After all, you can’t control a safety risk or chemical hazard if you don’t know it exists. This blog introduces you to the chemical identification process: locating the chemicals, then determining their hazards. This process is also the first step in the STOREMASTA risk management methodology IDENTIFY - ASSESS - CONTROL - SUSTAIN, and an essential requirement for meeting your Work Health and Safety obligations. 

LEGISLATION: A person conducting a business or undertaking must manage the risks to health and safety associated with using, handling, generating or storing a hazardous chemical at a workplace.

Section 351 Model WHS Regulations.

Conducting a site inspection for hazardous chemicals

We recommend beginning the identification process with a thorough site inspection where you physically walk around the entire job site, entering work areas and consulting with workers and line supervisors.

Hazardous chemicals can be found all over a worksite and we suggest printing out a floor plan so you don’t miss anything. Some common areas include:

  • Manufacturing and production lines

  • Warehouses, raw materials and chemical stores

  • Spray booths, decanting and lube stations

  • Laboratories and testing facilities

  • Repair and maintenance workshops

  • Refuse and waste stations

  • Engine rooms and vehicle depots

Talk to your staff about the chemicals they use and the way they use them, then create a master list of materials and substances present at the worksite.

IMPORTANT: To comply with the WHS Act and Regulations, the hazard identification process should be carried out in consultation with your workers.

Reading chemical labels and Safety Data Sheets (SDSs)

When you have your master list of chemicals you should also check the products labels and SDSs for each of the chemicals to determine their physical or health hazards. The product labels contain clear symbols that quickly identify the chemical as hazardous, these include:

  • Pictograms - recognisable symbols that identify hazards (eg, flames, bomb, skull and crossbones)

  • Signal words - WARNING or DANGER

  • Hazard and precautionary statements - instructions for people using, handling or storing the chemicals

The SDS issued by the manufacturer, supplier, or importer of the chemical will also present a full list of known hazards, and advice for safe use and storage (eg, PPE recommendations, workplace storage controls, environmental concerns).

IMPORTANT: If you encounter an unknown chemical in an unmarked container you should attach a label stating Caution - Do Not Use - Unknown Substance. You’ll need to take steps to identify the substance so it can be either correctly labeled or disposed of safely.

Less obvious chemicals and hazardous substances

Identifying chemicals from labels and SDSs is relatively straight forward, but hazardous chemicals don’t always come in packaged containers with neat labels. Sometimes chemicals are generated in the workplace via work processes or emitted as chemical waste. Other chemicals are hidden from view in pipelines or operating plant and machinery.

1. Chemicals generated in the workplace

Welding fume, wood dust, metal grindings, factory emissions, solvent vapours, diesel exhaust, and sewerage are all examples of hazardous chemicals generated during manufacturing, work processes, and general operations. None of these chemicals will have a specific SDS or a product label, but they still need to be identified as hazardous and have their risks assessed. This is why it’s essential to consult with your staff in their work areas.

2. Chemicals hidden from view

Other chemicals can be hidden from direct view inside chemical pipelines. Pipelines can carry flammable, explosive, and toxic substances that present a significant hazard to your people, your property or the environment if the pipeline was to fail.

Hazardous chemicals may also be present inside operating plant and machinery. You need to conduct a risk assessment on the actual equipment and how it is used to understand the nature of chemicals used for fuel or manufacturing, or emissions (mists, dusts, vapours, fumes, oil leaks) that could be released.

3. Chemical reactions

Some relatively benign substances become flammable, toxic, or explosive when exposed to incompatible chemicals or even water. Apart from an SDS you should consult with industry associations or external consultants who can help you identify chemical reactions common to your industry group. In many cases you may need to arrange isolated safety cabinets or segregate chemical stores to prevent dangerous reactions.

IMPORTANT: Identifying hazardous chemicals correctly is not just for risk assessment purposes, you also have obligations under the WHS Regulations in your state or territory to ensure that all chemicals in the workplace are labeled correctly and work areas carry compliant warning placards, pictograms, and signage.

Next Steps

Identifying hazardous chemicals and determining the risks they present to your workers, property, and the environment is best carried out following the steps of an approved risk management methodology. Download our free eBook How to manage the risk of Hazardous Chemicals in the workplace to learn how to apply our four-step methodology to the chemical hazards at your own job site. Read it today and get your workplace 100% chemical safety compliant.

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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