In fact, it’s inevitable that many workplaces will contain hazardous materials. Thus, whether this is due to the nature of streamlining production processes or just because it’s more cost effective. In short, hazardous materials are a big part of our life.
What is more, often employees will consider it a little over the top to start labeling cleaning products and the like. Consequently, it is quite a well-known fact that if you can smell something it’s affecting you. For example, dish washing liquid may smell nice while you’re doing the dishes, but it is having an impact on your senses even though ever so slight.

Furthermore, one of the big concerns relating to labeling.  Indeed, is that many hazardous materials often look like cordial or something that would be quite nice to drink. Subsequently, kids are therefore often vulnerable to the hazards of chemicals no matter how slight the consequences of drinking them.

Next, hazardous materials and emergencies.

Additionally, the above summary may have been mostly about some pretty non-hazardous materials but in the workplace, we can deal with some pretty nasty chemicals. History has shown, within the firefighting community, that hazardous material incidents (emergencies) do occur and sadly at quite a high rate.

Not every organisation who manages these materials does the right thing. Thus, recently in Melbourne Australia, a factory storing hazardous materials caught alight and caused untold destruction. Thank goodness, no one was killed. As a final point, the media reported that the quantities of hazardous materials were (pre-fire) said to be well above the legal limit.

Recognising a hazardous materials incident

Moreover, hazardous materials are broadly defined as chemicals that can adversely affect life, property and the environment. However, if you work in or are exposed to chemicals as part of your employment. It’s advisable to have quite a good knowledge of what you are dealing with. Above all, including a good knowledge of procedures for safe handling.

Actually, one of the benefits of this understanding is that this knowledge empowers individuals to recognise that an incident has the potential to become an emergency or has the possibility of turning into an emergency.
Therefore, pre-planning is a large part of preparing for and recognition of hazardous materials incidents. Plans should contain how to gather specialist advice or at least how to obtain this advice either onsite or offsite.
A guide on how to isolate and deal with the emergency and who are trained and/or going to take charge of the organisation’s response.

The type of hazardous material might be known in advance. If not, the protocols around response should be observed i.e. maintain a safe distance and move personnel and/or the public. By the way,  away from the area without placing yourself in harm’s way.

Identify and assessing the hazard

Once the life risk is isolated responders can move onto assess the associated hazard and whether it can be contained easily with very little intervention or whether a rapid response from the emergency services is required. Whichever scenario is required the responder must make a qualified, calculated and competent assessment of the hazardous materials involved.

Material safety data sheets (MSDS) should form part of this assessment and should be part of the organisational procedures and response mechanism.

Developing a plan to mitigate the risks of a hazardous materials incident

To start with, once we have recognised that there is an emergency situation. After this, identified and assessed the hazard we need to formulate an end objective. Often this includes involvement of the emergency services but if quite minor and it can be dealt with very easily, then an in house response may be all that is required. There will still need to be a calculated and defined response to the situation.

As a result, the risk may be overcome by simply using a strategy relating to the safe handling and protective equipment. As a guide, the MSDS should be used to confirm your response. Here, it must be noted that for any hazardous materials incident where the assessment indicated anything other than a minor hazard the emergency services should be consulted straight away. Normally this would be done by the fire brigade via triple zero.

In my experience, the fire brigade is very keen to provide advice on the scene even during minor incidents. Above all, the last thing anyone wants is for it to become a large scale emergency. The equipment they have for dealing with hazardous materials incidents is generally second to none.

Personal Protective Equipment

In addition, knowledge is the key and if the MSDS indicated a level of personal protective equipment (PPE) you don’t have,  then there is a need again to dial triple zero. If you can deal with the situation within the workplace then be guided by the levels of protection advised in the MSDS. This level of protection should be well known as your pre-plan and Standard Operating Procedures will identify such PPE.

Whenever PPE is used there is a need for decontamination. Procedures for making the PPE safe will again be in the MSDS and part of your preplans. Whichever method is used the environmental impact must be assessed.


Detection and containment strategies

Firstly, there are complete books on this part of responding to hazardous materials incidents. Many organisation have some great equipment to help in the identification phase After this, ongoing monitoring also has a role in limiting the impact on life. Not to mention, if your organisation has some really nasty hazardous chemicals. It’s likely that the Work Safety and EPA authorities require you to purchase some of this equipment for safety.

In either event, there are a number of methods of containing chemicals from washing them away with copious quantities of water.  And, to bund them and having an appropriate recovery organisation deal with them.

Assisting the emergency services

If the emergency services have responded to an incident at your location.  Then they will want to talk with those who understand the specific risk. They have some great equipment but specialist advice is something they will be looking for rapidly when they arrive on the scene.

They also do have access to Scientific Officers but often that can take time to set up. If your organisation has a specialist in the field it should be part of normal operating procedures. To make them available during hazardous materials incidents.

Emergency management planning for hazardous materials

Whenever a hazardous material incident has occurred, what better time for a review. An after action review (AAR) will form the basis for a better response if the situation arises again. It should also be mentioned that where such incidents end up being investigated by the coroner. There will be a requirement for a complete analysis of the emergency management plan. If you haven’t already you should have a look at Australian Standard AS3745-2010. This document is a great guide and is called up in a number of Acts which gives some pretty awesome power.

In conclusion, if you would like to discuss emergency planning of for hazardous materials or awareness training. Finally, please drop us a line at Syncretic Training Group.


By Ken Walker

Hi, I'm Ken. I am the owner and senior director of Syncretic training Group Pty Ltd. If you have any questions about the website content or require guidance please let us know we are always happy to help.

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