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Managing Risks of Hazardous Chemicals in the Workplace

Hazardous chemicals are substances, mixtures and articles used in the workplace that can be a health or physicochemical hazard if not handled or stored correctly.

Health hazards such as skin irritants, carcinogens or respiratory sensitisers can have an adverse effect on a worker's health as a result of direct contact with or exposure to the chemical, usually through inhalation, skin contact or ingestion.

Physicochemical hazards generally result from the physical or chemical properties, like flammability, corrosiveness, oxidising agents or their explosive potential.

WHS Regulations and the GHS

The Work Health and Safety Regulations 2012 (SA) (the WHS Regulations) established a new system of chemical classification and hazard communication on labels and Safety Data Sheets (SDS), based on the Globally Harmonised System of Classification and Labelling of Chemicals (GHS).

However, there is a transitional period in South Australia for moving to the new GHS-based system. Workplace chemicals will not need to be re-classified or re-labelled immediately. During this transitional period, manufacturers may use either the GHS for classification, labelling and SDS, or the previous hazardous substances and dangerous goods classification systems.

The transitional period ends on 31 December 2016. From 1 January 2017, all workplace chemicals must be classified according to the GHS and labels and SDS must be updated.

Please note that some hazard classes and categories are excluded by the WHS Regulations and therefore the Code does not apply to those chemicals.

Refer to page 3 of the Code for more information on exclusions.

The GHS is a single internationally agreed system of chemical classification and hazard communication through labelling and SDS. The GHS is published by the United Nations and includes harmonised criteria for the classification of physical hazards, health hazards and environmental hazards.

For modifications to the requirements of the GHS, refer to Schedule 6 of the WHS Regulations.

Managing the risks

A Person Conducting a Business or Undertaking (PCBU) must manage risks associated with using, handling, generating or storing hazardous chemicals at a workplace.

A PCBU must ensure that a register of hazardous chemicals at the workplace is prepared and kept up-to-date. The register must be readily accessible to workers who work with hazardous chemicals and to anyone else likely to be exposed to a hazardous chemical at the workplace.

Refer to page 8 of the Code for more information.

Identifying hazardous chemicals

The identity of chemicals in the workplace can usually be determined by looking at the label and the SDS and reading what ingredients are in each chemical or product. Manufacturers and importers are required to provide labels and SDSs, and must review the SDS at least once in every five years.

Specific guidance on what a manufacturer or importer must include in an SDS and label can be found in the following Codes:

Exposure standards

Exposure standards are legal concentration limits that must not be exceeded.

A PCBU must ensure that a worker is not exposed to airborne contaminants above the workplace exposure standard. The list of workplace exposure standards for airborne contaminants is contained within the publication Workplace Exposure Standards for Airborne Contaminants or these are also available within the Hazardous Substances Information System database.

The publication, the database and the current GHS classification chemicals list can be accessed from www.safeworkaustralia.gov.au.

Assessing the risks

When assessing the risks associated with hazardous chemicals in your workplace you need to:

  • decide who should do the assessment
  • decide what sort of risk assessment is appropriate i.e. basic, generic or detailed
  • consider both the health and physicochemical risks and how the workers may be exposed when they use it in the workplace.

Refer to pages 15-26 of the Code for more information about risk assessment.

Controlling the risks

You must always aim to eliminate a hazard and associated risk first. If this is not reasonably practicable, the risk must be minimised by using one or more of the following approaches:

  • substitution
  • isolation
  • implementing engineering controls.

Refer to pages 27-41 of the Code for more information about controlling risks.

Emergency plans

A PCBU must prepare an effective emergency plan for the workplace. The purpose of the emergency plan is to plan for, and thus minimise, the effects of any dangerous occurrence or near miss at a workplace resulting from the handling and storage of hazardous chemicals.

Refer to pages 45-47 of the Code for more information.