If you use, carry, or store hazardous chemicals at your workplace you have responsibilities under the WHS Regulations to ensure they are not presenting a risk to the health and safety of your workers, site visitors (and other people), buildings, and property — as well as the environment. This blog will help you understand your legal obligations to control chemical hazards and walk you through the 6 essential steps listed in the Regulations.
1. Identifying hazards
You must identify reasonably foreseeable hazards that could give rise to risks to health and safety. Section 34 WHS Regulations.
When hazardous chemicals are present at the worksite, it is reasonably foreseeable that chemical hazards will exist. Chemicals are physical hazards if they can burn or support a fire (flammables and combustibles), explode (explosives, compressed gases), or react dangerously with another material or substance (oxidisers, organic peroxides). At the same time many chemicals are also health hazards when they are inhaled, ingested, or contact a worker’s skin and eyes (corrosives, toxins, carcinogens).
To make sure every chemical hazard is identified you should be (at a minimum):
- Conducting regular site inspections to identify hazardous chemicals that have been pre-purchased — noting the quantities, container types/sizes, and location.
- Identifying hazardous chemicals generated through work processes (emissions, wood and grain dust, liquid waste).
- Reviewing product labels and Safety Data Sheets (SDSs) for information on the ways each chemical can create a workplace hazard.
2. Eliminate the hazard
You must eliminate risks to health and safety so far as is reasonably practicable. Section 35 WHS Regulations
If you’ve identified a chemical hazard your next responsibility is to see if there is a way to totally eliminate the hazard. Chemical hazards are complex and many substances introduce multiple hazards to workplace — some of them created by the way they are used or stored. Unless you stop using a chemical completely you probably won’t be able to eliminate all the risk, but you can introduce various measure that will eliminate some of the hazards.
EXAMPLE: You employ cleaning staff to clean the warehouse and despatch areas. They hand-mix 3 types of corrosive cleaning chemicals in buckets (outside) and use hand tools (mops, rags, cloths). The chemicals are stored at the back of the warehouse. Multiple hazards exist including:
- Skin contact and inhalation hazard while mixing chemicals.
- Leaking and corrosion hazard while in storage area.
- Incompatibility hazard (ammonia, bleach, floor stripper).
- Environmental hazard mixing chemicals outside.
- Skin exposure hazard while using hand tools.
Installing a sanitation system that uses one pre-mixed substance stored in IBCs and dispensed with a pressure hose would eliminate some (but not all) of the hazards.
3. Implementing compliance controls
In minimising risks to health and safety, you must implement risk control measures in accordance with this regulation. Sections 35 & 36 WHS Regulations
If you were unable to totally eliminate the hazard you must minimise the risk as much as possible and apply any risk control measures mandated in the Regulations. Examples include:
- Keeping air-borne chemical concentration levels in the breathing zones of workers within workplace exposure standards.
- Correctly labelling chemical containers, and placarding chemical storage and handling areas.
- Having a Register of Hazardous Chemicals in work areas where chemicals are used, stored, or handled.
IMPORTANT: These are only examples and some mandatory controls apply to specific substances (eg restricted and prohibited carcinogens, lead, asbestos etc). Always check the Regulations carefully to ensure your compliance obligations are fulfilled.
4. Find substitution/isolation/engineering controls
You must minimise risks, so far as is reasonably practicable, by doing 1 or more of the following:
(a) substituting (wholly or partly) the hazard with a lesser risk; (b) isolating the hazard from any person exposed to it; (c) implementing engineering controls. Section 36 (3) WHS Regulations
Your next step is to look for a combination of substitution, isolation or engineering controls to minimise the hazard to an acceptable level. Each of these measures seek to address the hazard at it’s source as follows:
- Substitution controls - look for safer alternatives. Examples include: using a lower concentration of a corrosive cleaning chemical, using a different form of the same chemical (paste instead of a powder to reduce dust); using water-based paints.
- Isolation controls - use distance to minimise the hazard. Examples include: enclosing chemicals in a glove box to prevent exposure; isolating a chemical store from operational areas, ignition sources, and traffic; segregating incompatible chemicals and substances.
- Engineering controls - use machinery and mechanical devices to reduce exposure to a chemical. Examples include: mechanical ventilation systems in chemical decanting areas; gas bottle trolleys to secure acetylene and O2 cylinders while in use; chemical safety cabinets manufactured for a specific hazard class (flammables, corrosives, toxic substances).
5. Update your systems and procedures
You must minimise the remaining risk, so far as is reasonably practicable, by implementing administrative controls. Section 36 (4) WHS Regulations
In order to be effective, all chemical controls require administrative systems and procedures to ensure they are installed, used, and maintained properly. These are known as administrative controls. Examples include:
- Site rules, company policies.
- Safe work procedures, operations manuals.
- Induction programs, safety training, remedial and review sessions.
- Inspections, audits and maintenance programs.
Administrative controls are only effective when workers actually follow them, and should never be used as a single chemical control measure.
6. Issue Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)
You must minimise the remaining risk, so far as is reasonably practicable, by ensuring the provision and use of suitable personal protective equipment. Section 36 (5) WHS Regulations
Finally, if any hazard remains you will need to issue suitable personal protective equipment (PPE) for additional exposure protection. PPE includes the gloves, protective coveralls, aprons, goggles, eye guards, safety boots (etc) worn by the people actually handling the chemicals.
As a control measure PPE is considered the least effective because it merely places a barrier between the chemical and the worker. If the PPE should fail for any reason (damage, forgotten, or simply ignored) the worker has no protection from the chemical. PPE must always be used in conjunction with other hazard control measures.
IMPORTANT: The WHS Regulations also require that control measures are constantly reviewed and maintained to ensure they are fit for the task, and always working properly.
The most effective and reliable way to control chemical hazards is to follow a tested risk management methodology. We invite you to download our free eBook How to manage the risk of Hazardous Chemicals in the workplace which walks you through the STOREMASTA four-step methodology IDENTIFY - ASSESS - CONTROL - SUSTAIN. Follow our risk management methodology to achieve chemical safety compliance.