Chemicals that are hazardous to life are everywhere around us in the workplace. Whether in cleaning cupboards or in large quantities stored around industrial work sites. They are only dangerous when handled inappropriately or allowed to escape the confines of a container designed to keep those around the chemicals to be away from harm.

If hazardous chemicals become uncontained or are used inappropriately the consequences can be devastating. In this article, we will look at some of the procedures relating to the identification, risk management, controlling risk, monitoring and emergency planning.

Hazardous Chemicals and who’s responsible.

Hazardous chemicals are defined as substances, mixtures or articles that satisfy the criteria set out in the Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labelling of Chemicals (GHS). There are some restrictions and exemptions but the classification system is the basis for identifying a chemical as hazardous.

There are two general categories of hazard, which are health hazards and physical hazards. Some chemicals may fit into both of these categories.

Some examples of health hazards are those substances that may be toxic and adversely impact human life or the environment. They also include carcinogens and other substances that may cause long and short term issues relating to infertility or birth defects.

Physical hazards are those that impact human life and/or the environment, for example, flammable liquids, corrosives, explosives and chemical reactive or oxidising agents.

dealing with chemicals in the workplace

Who is responsible for the management of hazardous chemicals?

All workers have responsibilities to take care when handling chemicals. Even so, it is the owner of the business who takes ultimate responsibility for ensuring that the whole process of managing chemicals is safe and implemented. Whilst the chemicals are located at the business or being transported by that business.

Importers manufacturers and other businesses involved with the manufacture, transport and use of the chemical are also a large part of ensuring safety. For example, if a manufacturer failed to disclose a hazard then they may be responsible for any adverse physical or health hazard.

What is required to manage hazardous chemical risk?

AS with all potential and real risk we use risk management tools and processes to establish a hierarchy of control. Firstly by eliminating the risk of substituting the hazard with something safer. Furthermore by using and administrative control or PPE.

The owner of the business must consult with workers about health and safety matters. This duty to consult is also afforded to contractors and other subcontractors, including volunteers. A business owner is required to make every effort to consult this group. Where such consultation is reasonably practical.

For Example, a business owner may delegate the responsibility to consult with a health and safety rep. Where subcontractors work remotely this could apply. But every effort must be made to consult workers on issues relating to their health and safety.

Exposure standards to chemicals.

The standard is called “Workplace Exposure Standards for Airborne Contaminants’ ‘. These standards identify and are divided into three main exposure categories. It should be noted that some chemicals have no safe exposure and as such will be indicated in the exposure standard.

Due to the potential critical nature of these standards, there is a guidance document called the “Guidance on the Interpretation of Workplace Exposure Standards for Airborne Contaminants”.

The categories are:

Eight Hours time-weighted average – this indicates the acceptable standard for exposure to airborne contaminants permitted over an eight hour period and the five-day working week
Peak Limitations – This is the peak limitation of exposure to airborne contaminants over a 15 minute period.
Short term exposure limit – again this is a time-weighted average of exposure to a chemical (airborne contaminants) over a 15 minute period.


It should be noted that this is a general standard and the figures could change over time. They are about exposure limits using current knowledge. As further research and development is conducted into an individual chemical and more becomes know about its effects.

hazardous chemicals

Registering Hazardous chemicals

Again the owners of a business are ultimately responsible for providing a register of hazardous chemicals. The information is available to all workers/contractors via a safety data sheet (SDS). Such a register must list the product name and the associated hazard of the chemical.

During emergencies the fire department may need to refer also to the S.D.S. They will be placed in a manifest of chemicals so for an individual business all of the S.D.S. are in one place and readily available. There are regulations associated with this in the Work Health and Safety Regulations (Schedule 11).

Labelling hazardous chemicals.

It is the responsibility of the manufacturer of chemicals that all labelling is correct. Furthermore, if a manufacturer or other person knows that a chemical is incorrectly labelled then that person must take action to ensure it is not distributed further.

The business owner is also responsible for labelling and when there isn’t enough room on a container to provide complete information the owner must take action to inform users of potential and real hazards associated with that chemical.

The risk assessment.

Many chemicals are hazardous by nature and those assessing their risk must be competent to carry out such assessments.

They should have a good understanding of local and federal legislation, the systems and processes used in the specific work location and have enough information to ensure they make contact with the right people who can provide advice and documented information specifically relevant to the chemical or chemicals.

The assessor should also be able to interpret S.D.S. information to analyze the risk and seek specialist advice if necessary to foresee potential problems in the future. They must have the ability to then bring all the information together in a systematic way and report the findings to the responsible persons I.e. the owner.

A risk assessment can be a time consuming and complex task so only competent persons should conduct such assessments. The code of practice provides a guide on the level of competency required to carry out a risk assessment.

Providing information, training, instruction and supervision.

All of these factors are essential, but again the responsibility comes back to the Person undertaking or conducting business (the owner). A definition of this person is available on Google by searching PCBU.

Providing information to workers including supervisors will help eliminate risks. This may be done in the form of training or for simpler information via workplace briefings. Whichever way this information has distributed the receiver of such information must outline their understanding of what has been passed on. Supervisors and workplace trainers are well-positioned to conduct this assessment.

Emergency Planning and reviews.

One just has to look at the newsweekly to see the results of chemical emergencies and the like. Emergencies happen every day and it is the businesses owners responsibility to provide a mechanism for emergency planning. As per Australian Standard 3745-2010 (Emergency planning in a facility). This is a whole other topic which is discussed in another blog post (Click Here).

In Conclusion.

Hazardous chemicals by nature have the potential to cause real harm to workers and the environment. It is therefore that a comprehensive understanding of standard and legislation is required when responsible for the use of chemicals. Furthermore, workers also have a responsibility to ensure they understand the hazards and work to constantly mitigate the risk.

For further reading and information please click here.

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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