Working with and storing hazardous chemicals

Do you know how to safely store the chemicals you work with and the obligations you have under WHS legislation? Are you responsible for developing safety data sheets?

Working with and around chemicals can be dangerous if you don’t know the right way to use them and store them. Let’s look at some of the common health and safety risks of storing chemicals review how to manage those risks.

Hazardous chemicals are defined as substances, mixtures and articles that can pose a health or physical hazard to humans. They may be solids, liquids or gases.

Health hazards are properties of a chemical that cause adverse health effects. This could include toxic chemicals, carcinogens and chemicals which may cause infertility or birth defects. Exposure to these chemicals usually occurs through inhalation, ingestion or skin contact.

Physical hazards are properties of a chemical that can result in immediate injury to people or damage to property. For example, flammable liquids, compressed gases and self-heating substances. Corrosive chemicals can have both physical and health hazards and could damage skin and eyes.

Even when you’re not using them, chemicals can still pose a risk. Flammable and oxidising chemicals may cause or contribute to a fire, corrosive chemicals can injure workers and damage structures they come into contact with and toxic chemicals can poison. Compressed gases can also suffocate or poison workers if they leak.

Also, some chemicals are not compatible with other chemicals. When incompatible chemicals mix they can explode, release toxic, flammable or corrosive gases, or corrode chemical containers, causing them to leak. It’s important to identify which chemicals are incompatible and ensure that hazardous chemicals are stored safely to minimise the chance of an incident occurring.

When using and storing hazardous chemicals, you should always follow a risk management approach, by:

  • Identifying the hazards – what could cause harm?
  • Assess the risks, if any – how could it harm workers, how serious is the harm and how likely is it to happen?
  • Eliminate these risks so far as is reasonably practicable
  • Control the risks – if it is not practical to eliminate the risk, implement control measures
  • Review and maintain control measures

This might include considerations such as:

  • Where possible, perform the task without using hazardous chemicals
  • Where possible, substitute hazardous chemicals with less toxic alternatives
  • Isolate hazardous chemicals
  • Ensure storage areas are separately ventilated from the rest of the workplace
  • Make sure workers are thoroughly trained in handling chemicals safety
  • Always use personal protection equipment (PPE) such as respirators, gloves and goggles
  • Regularly monitor the workplace with appropriate equipment to track the degree of hazardous chemicals in the air or environment
  • Consult with your workers to maintain and improve existing safety and handling practices
  • Keep emergency management plans up to date, and share them with workers
  • Eliminate ignition sources, but if not practicable then control them
  • Clearly label all hazardous chemicals, including those decanted into other containers.

NOTE: When labelling chemicals, the GHS1notes warning labels on hazardous substances should feature hazard pictograms, signal words (such as danger and warning), hazard statements (such as fatal if swallowed) and precautionary statements (such as wear protective gloves).

Before you use or store any hazardous chemicals, you must get a current safety data sheet from the manufacturer or supplier. You must also maintain updated safety data sheets and ensure your workers, emergency services personnel or anyone who asks is provided with that information.

You also need to keep a register that lists all the hazardous chemicals (except certain consumer products and certain chemicals in transit) which are used, stored and handled at your workplace. It must include the current safety data sheet for each chemical listed. Make sure everyone affected by the hazardous chemicals can view the register.

If you store chemicals, use a checklist to help keep them safe and ensure you are storing them correctly (see our one-page checklist at the end of this article).

For more information, visit the work health and safety regulator in your state.

  1. Globally Harmonised System (GHS) of Classification and Labelling of Chemicals
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