Almost every workplace in Australia contains some form of hazardous chemical, and in most cases there are many of them. Whilst some chemical hazards such as solvents or insecticides are easy to identify, others are found in common products such as cleaners, degreasers, disinfectants and other seemingly innocuous items.
It is important to consider every chemical being used in a workplace in order to positively identify any inherent risks. A structured approach must then be implemented to managing these risks.
I make purchasing decisions. What is my responsibility?
Everyone in an organisation has a legal obligation under the WHS Act to ensure that the health and safety of themselves and others is not put at risk. Business owners and others with significant decision making ability also carry extra responsibilities. This means that those in charge of a purchasing decision must take reasonable steps to ensure any substances they purchase do not cause harm.
What are the risks?
Chemical risks can be divided into two categories: Health Hazards and Physiochemical Hazards.
Health Hazards occur when people come into contact with a toxic substance. This can cause illnesses such as respiratory distress, fatigue or skin conditions, or more chronic complaints such as organ damage and cancer. Some poisonous substances can cause immediate death if handled incorrectly.
Physiochemical Hazards describe a group of risks including burns, fires, explosions and other adverse effects that aren’t illnesses. This is generally associated with substances that are flammable, corrosive or that can react dangerously with other chemicals in the workplace.
How do I identify risks?
The best place to start is the product label and SDS (Safety Data Sheet). In most cases this will tell you what ingredients are in a product and whether any of them are hazardous. It will also give you warnings and classifications associated with that product such as whether it is flammable or poisonous. Beware that there are potential hazards that can arise from bi-products produced when chemicals are put into use, and these may not be featured on the SDS.
If you are in any doubt about a product contact the manufacturer for more information.
If you’ve identified a potential risk in the product information you must then conduct a workplace risk assessment either internally or through a 3rd party.
I have identified a risk. What do I do?
Any identified risk must be addressed and the guidelines for doing this can be found on the Safe Work Australia website. There is a clear order of priority when managing risk and these must be moved through sequentially.
Priority 1 – Elimination
If at all possible do not use hazardous chemicals. If it is practical and reasonable to do without it then you must not put people at unnecessary risk.
Priority 2 – Substitution
If it’s not practical or reasonable to eliminate a hazardous chemical then a less hazardous substitute must be sought. There are many safe alternatives to common dangerous chemicals that perform just as well or better than the toxic ones they replace.
Priority 3 – Isolation
If a hazardous substance must be used then personal contact needs to be minimised. Isolation might include personal protective equipment and special storage facilities.
Priority 4 – Engineering Controls
Engineering controls include solutions such as ventilation systems, spray booths and fume cupboards.
Purchasing Decisions for a Safer Workplace
It is everyone’s responsibility to minimise the amount of toxic, dangerous chemicals in the workplace and purchasing officers are on the front line in this battle. The chemicals you do and don’t introduce into the workplace can have important health impacts both now and in the long term. It’s your legal responsibility to choose carefully.