Understanding Chemicals in the Workplace

In 1984 at a pesticide plant in India, 40 tonnes of methyl isocyanate gas leaked into the atmosphere and exposed 500,000 people to the toxic substance. More than 3,000 people died within a few days and another 25,000 have died since. Even today, 30+  years later people are still suffering the long term effects of birth defects and contamination to the environment.

This blog is an introduction to hazardous chemicals in the workplace: what they are, the harm they cause, and the critical importance of understanding their properties. No matter whether you’re a pesticide plant with thousands of workers or a nail salon with five employees, if any hazardous chemicals are used in your work processes you must ensure workers and customers, plus the local community (including the environment) is not harmed.

What are hazardous chemicals?

Hazardous chemicals are chemicals and substances capable of causing harm. They are not just liquids (acetone, peroxide, butane, petrol); hazardous chemicals are also compressed gases (ammonia, chlorine, methane) and solids (lye, cement mix, asbestos).

How do hazardous chemicals cause harm?

Hazardous chemicals can be harmful to people, to property and also to the environment. Let’s look at these a little more closely.

Harm to people

When hazardous chemicals get into our bodies we can suffer immediate irritation, poisoning and asphyxiation, but long-term exposure that potentially leads to liver damage, blindness and cancer may not be noticeable for years. And because chemicals enter our body in different ways, for example:

  •         inhaled via the lungs
  •         ingested or swallowed via the mouth
  •         absorbed via the skin

it is vital that operations and safety managers fully understand the properties of the chemicals they use. Only then can they take adequate preventative measures to reduce or completely eliminate human contact with the substance.

Harm to property

Many hazardous chemicals are combustible, highly flammable, or explosive and capable of causing major damage to worksites and other property. Fires, explosions and similar disasters often occur because management doesn’t really understand the true nature of the chemicals they use. Like a drum of hydrogen peroxide stored on a wooden pallet causing a spontaneous fire (no sparks no ignition source) which spreads to other chemical drums, eventually destroying the warehouse worth millions of dollars.

Harm to the environment

When not managed properly, hazardous chemicals cause significant environmental damage by exposing public lands, rivers and oceans, wildlife, the general public, and the atmosphere to toxic substances. Again when management fully understands the properties of all the chemicals they use, they can safely dispose of toxic waste, ensure poisonous liquids don’t contaminate neighbouring properties and waterways, and prevent toxic gases from entering the atmosphere.

Managing hazardous chemicals in the workplace

Safely managing hazardous chemicals is an ongoing process balancing the benefits of a chemical against it’s potential to harm. The cement mix that binds the houses and buildings that keep us secure can cause chemical burns and lung cancer; the chlorine that sterilises our drinking water and swimming pools can severely irritate the eyes, nose, and respiratory tract; and exposure to the ammonia we use to clean our bathtubs, showers and toilets can cause coughing, shortness of breath, chest pain, nausea, and lung damage.

Safe chemical management involves …

  • Identifying the substances you use at work and gaining a full understanding of their properties and hazards.
  • Assessing each of the hazards associated with a chemical: including your current work practices and the dangerous events that could occur when using it.
  • Controlling each and every hazard associated with using a chemical.
  • Sustaining a safe work environment by practicing ongoing risk management and monitoring.

Having a consistent approach to chemical management is essential so we’ve developed a clear methodology for carrying out risk management on hazardous chemicals. You can learn more about it by reading our recent blog Developing a safe workplace using the STOREMASTA Chemical Management Procedure or by downloading our free eBook How to manage the risk of Hazardous Chemicals in the workplace.

Our chemical management procedure outlines how to undertake risk management and understand the hazardous chemicals you use onsite.

Storing hazardous chemicals safely

Safe storage is another essential part of chemical management. Again, this cannot be achieved unless you fully understand a chemical’s properties and hazard class. Consulting the Safety Data Sheet (SDS) will help you identify any mandatory storage requirements such as …


Securely storing explosives and detonators through the day and at the end of shift is essential. Consider using an explosive storage cabinet or day box made from fully welded 2mm steel, with timber lining,  powder coated finish, heavy duty internal locking system and hinges.

Gases and Aerosols

Safely store aerosols, gas cylinders and bottles in gas cylinder storage cages made from heavy-duty steel and mesh walls to provide natural ventilation. Permanently secure them using bolt down plates.


Corrosives are volatile and must be stored carefully. Try corrosive storage cabinets made from 100% high density polyethylene that has been tested for chemical resistance.  They should be completely metal-free and have lockable self-closing doors with integral pivot pins and no hinges.

Flammable liquids

Flammable liquids can be stored in stainless steel cabinets, ideally with perforated shelving to allow free movement of air and high capacity liquid tight sump to contain any spills.

REMEMBER: hazardous chemicals must be clearly labelled using mandatory placards that display their hazard class, pictogram and hazard statements.

Next Steps

The chemical leak at the pesticide plant in Bhopal, India was caused by a lack of maintenance. But the ongoing disaster that continues to claim lives was the result of ineffective risk management. To help you manage risk when using hazardous chemicals in your own workplace, we encourage you to use our step-by-step methodology for safe chemical management.

We present our methodology for managing chemical risks in our FREE eBook; How to manage the risk of Hazardous Chemicals in the workplace. This eBook will help you to minimise your workers exposure to hazardous chemicals. Download this eBook 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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