When it comes to handling chemicals in the workplace you can never know too much

Adam Thomson was 18 years old and had just started his first job, in the horticulture industry. His task one day was to dip tubers into a tub of chemical solution before drying them on racks above heaters.

Unbeknownst to Adam, he was using a chemical solution 20 times stronger than it needed to be. His workmate, who mixed the solution, had misread the label on the chemicals delivered to the farm the previous day.

With no hand cloth, antibacterial soap or hand sanitiser, Adam spent three hours with his hands immersed in a concoction that has left him scarred for life. Ten years on and Adam still has chemical sores on both hands and forearms. It was two years before the lesions even appeared.

What’s the issue?

Over the past three years in NSW, more than 5000 people have been injured in the course of using hazardous chemicals in the workplace.

Some of these injuries are minor, such as headaches, nausea and vomiting. Others are far more serious, such as blindness, poisoning, chemical burns and respiratory illness.

Exposure to hazardous chemicals can even cause cancer, birth defects or severe damage to your lungs, liver or kidneys.

The danger is not always evident. In the workplace, hazardous chemicals can come in the form of powders, fumes and gases. Some common examples include acids, disinfectants, glues, paint and pesticides.

Chances are your work brings you into contact with hazardous chemicals or chemical processes. As dangerous as some chemicals are, you can work with them safely by knowing what you are working with, how to handle and store them, and what to do in an emergency.

Recognise the hazards

When handling hazardous chemicals, knowledge is your most powerful tool. Start by recognising the specific hazard or hazards a hazardous chemical may present.

  • The safety data sheet is one of your best sources for information on hazardous chemicals. It contains a summary of a chemical’s hazards, as well as proper handling, use and storage methods. It also lists permissible exposure limits, the right personal protective equipment, fire-fighting techniques and other emergency procedures.
  • Create a workplace register by making a list of all the hazardous chemicals that you use, produce, store or handle, and always keep it up to date.

Pay attention to labels

The first step in identifying a chemical is to read the label. Each chemical that arrives in your workplace must have accurate labels containing specific information.

  • Read the label carefully for a chemical’s hazardous ingredients, the principal danger it poses and the name and address of the manufacturer, who can provide further information.
  • Some chemical manufacturers have their own customised hazard identification, so you need to become familiar with the system in your workplace. Stay informed and take time to understand all the hazards of the chemicals you use.

Handling and storage is key

You can reduce the risks of hazardous chemicals by handling and storing them properly. While specific requirements vary from one chemical to another, there are general guidelines that apply to most hazardous materials.

  • Before you use any chemical, make sure you know what it is. Do not use any chemical from an unidentified container. When transferring chemicals, use the proper container for each material.
  • The container you are transferring the material to must also have a proper label. Make sure the container is leak-proof, sturdy and compatible with the chemical.
  • Stack containers carefully so they won’t fall, and be sure they’re not stacked too high, blocking aisles or obstructing emergency exits.

Protect yourself

  • To reduce the risk of exposure to hazardous chemicals, wear personal protective equipment that is designed and tested for the chemicals you are using. Some chemicals require aprons or full-body coverings to protect you from splashes or contamination.
  • You may need an air purification device in areas where normal ventilation will not protect you from harmful vapours. These devices could range from simple air filters to respirators or even a self-contained breathing apparatus.
  • In all cases, protect your eyes with safety goggles or a face shield and protect your hands with appropriate gloves.

Be prepared

Your workplace’s emergency action plan contains specific information for handling hazardous chemical emergencies, including contact information, evacuation and rescue procedures, and reporting guidelines. Learn the plan before you have to use it.

Your knowledge could save lives and equipment if you apply it quickly and properly.

Keep it simple

Visit our simple safety page on hazardous chemicals for more information, and your other workplace legal obligations. All outlined in simple, plain English.

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Case study, Safety alerts, Workplace safety

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