How to identify chemical hazards in the workplace

Originally published July 11, 2018 06:19:49 AM

Working with chemicals safely is a key goal at many workplaces. However you can’t create a safe operating procedure or install the right safety equipment if you don’t know exactly what you’re dealing with. Chemicals are complex. For example, imagine something relatively harmless on its own, but mix it with water and now you’ve got a fire or an explosion. Also, some chemicals don’t harm you right away, but can result in chronic health conditions after long-term exposure.  

This blog is all about identification. Getting to know the chemicals you use, how they can affect the health of your workers, and then the physiochemical hazards that can damage property and the environment (think fires, explosions and emissions). We’ll also introduce you to the STOREMASTA methodology for hazard identification and how you can use it to assess and control all the chemical hazards at your workplace. Let’s go.

Identify the chemicals you are using

Identifying chemical hazards begins with correctly identifying the chemical itself. You do this by walking around your workplace and physically locating each and every chemical. Check the product labels and refer to the Safety Data Sheets (SDSs) provided by the chemical manufacturer or supplier; now make a list of the names of each chemical and where they are stored or handled.

REMEMBER: identifying chemical hazards always starts from a knowledge of the individual properties of a chemical.

Identify the health hazards associated with the chemicals

Chemical health hazards are the ways that people can be physically harmed by the chemicals themselves. Some examples include:

  • Toxic gases - can be inhaled
  • Poisonous liquids - can be swallowed, ingested or absorbed by the skin
  • Corrosive liquids and powders - can contact the skin
  • Carcinogenic dusts - can be inhaled

So for each chemical on that list you made earlier, you’ll need to identify every way it could cause physical harm to a person. The Safety Data Sheet (SDS) will detail this information in the sections “Hazards Identification” and “Toxicological Information”.

When identifying chemical health hazards, you need to be thorough. We mentioned earlier that chemicals are complex and many of them have more than one health hazard. A clear example of this are paint solvents which can cause respiratory damage and death from the toxic vapours. But solvent fumes have also caused many workers to lose consciousness or concentration and subsequently die from falls or operational errors. If you are new to this we recommend talking to your supplier as well as professional WHS consultants who specialises in hazardous chemicals and dangerous goods.

TIP: learn more about chemical hazards by reading our blog Chemical Hazards in the Workplace.

Identify the physiochemical hazards present in the workplace

Physiochemical hazards are the way chemicals can cause damage to the workplace as well as the external environment. Fires, explosions, and the destruction of an eco-system are all the results of physiochemical hazards.

Physiochemical hazards are usually identified by a chemical’s hazard class which you will find on the SDS, examples include …

  • Flammable liquids
  • Explosives
  • Oxidising gases
  • self-reactive substances and mixtures

When identifying the physiochemical hazards present in your workplace you’ll also need to include the ways you handle, store and use chemicals. Observe workers, talk to supervisors and line staff, review operating procedures and work methods; ask questions like:

  • Do staff keep chemicals on workbenches?
  • Are unlabelled portable containers  left out overnight?
  • Are all staff fully trained to use PPE correctly?
  • Can unauthorised personnel access chemical stores?
  • Are hazardous chemicals properly segregated and secured in safety cabinets?
  • Are emergency showers and eye wash stations installed?
  • Do site visitors smoke or use electronic gadgets near flammable stores?

REMEMBER: When staff don’t understand the dangerous properties of the chemicals they use or what to do in an emergency, these are considered physiochemical hazards too.

Use a methodology for hazard identification and risk control

We’ve mentioned a few times now that chemical hazards are complex. And to make sure you don’t overlook anything we recommend using the STOREMASTA methodology for risk management — it’s a complete system we developed specifically for managing hazardous chemicals and dangerous goods.

Following a simple 4-step sequence of risk identification, assessment, control and review; you’ll systematically find and manage every chemical hazard at your workplace. Our methodology is a complete system and (if followed properly) will help you get your workplace 100% compliant with chemical safety laws in Australia.

Here’s a quick overview of how it works:

  • Identify: follow our guidelines for correctly identifying every chemical you use, store or handle at your worksite; plus the chemical hazards associated with all of them.
  • Assess: work with our practical tools and templates to assess the consequences of workplace accidents and how often they could occur.
  • Control: use the Hierarchy of Control to introduce risk control measures to (ideally) eliminate each chemical hazard completely or (if not possible) reduce the harm/likelihood/frequency of a chemical accident or emergency happening.
  • Sustain: develop a system for conducting regular reviews so that the overall safety and compliance of your worksite is sustained.

TIP: eliminating hazardous substances from the workplace is always the best method of risk control.

Next Steps

Identifying the chemicals, you have at your workplace is only one important step to fully meet your WHS obligations relating to hazardous chemicals. We encourage you to download and read our free eBook How to manage the risk of Hazardous Chemicals in the workplace. You will quickly learn how to implement our Chemical Management Methodology into your workplace and systematically manage and control every chemical hazard present at your workplace. Download and read it today 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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