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Hazardous Chemicals & the GHS: Safety Data Sheets

Safety Data Sheets (SDSs) can provide a huge amount of valuable information, but on their own, don't outline how to safely use a chemical in your workplace.  

Whilst an SDS outlines a range of chemical properties and general safety information, the generic information documented in an SDS is just that, generic. Too often organisations rely on this generic instruction to guide workers on safe chemical handling techniques. Certainly, reviewing information within an SDS is essential, but on its own the information provides limited value as the manufacturer, supplier or importer hasn't considered what you plan on using the chemical for or how you plan on using it, two key factors in deciding control measures. Information like Hazard Statements can only tell you what is harmful (eg. Harmful in contact with skin), but not how to prevent contact with skin beyond generic suggestions for PPE (eg. gloves). If you have a handling process that requires products to be transported from a storage area, before being mixed, diluted or decanted, an SDS isn't going to instruct you on how to perform those tasks safely in your work environment.

Even more mistakenly, employers often ask workers to find and then follow the generic instruction in SDSs as a replacement for site specific handling techniques. As we have already covered in our previous blog entry, qualified safety professionals are already confused enough with the changes introduced with GHS. Couple this to the inherent complexity of chemical safety along with worker inexperience and there is a great recipe for a serious chemical incident.

To maximise the usefulness of information in SDSs, it needs to be evaluated while considering where or how the chemical hazards will emerge in your workplace. For simple tasks, this could be performed much like a task risk assessment where the potential for hazards, as outlined in the SDS, must be assessed against each key step in the storage, handling and disposal process. If the SDS outlines a product is corrosive to skin, it's up to you to identify where, in your processes, of the product can it come in contact with skin and implement ways to prevent the contact from occurring, not forgetting the Hierarchy of Control.

The more complex a process or a task is that involves chemicals, the more complex the evaluation, right up to the use of formal HAZOP studies, Quantitative Risk Assessments and Layers of Protection Analysis for major chemical processing plants. 

Recent industrial chemical disasters in Campbellfield and West Footscray and illegal chemical waste dumps in Victoria have highlighted the potential catastrophic damage that poor handling and storage of hazardous chemicals can cause. Communities are demanding greater compliance and enforcement measures and regulators are responding to ensure that the health, safety and environmental risks of hazardous chemicals are being properly managed. You will have the best chance of controlling the risk of hazardous chemicals if you complete a systematic and comprehensive assessment of chemical handling based on your specific circumstances, rather than simply relying on the generic information in an SDS.

Now that you have a pathway to improve how hazardous chemicals in your workplace are handled, we need to consider how they are stored. In our next Blog Entry, we will look at how to identify ways to safely store hazardous chemicals. Hit the subscribe button to be notified about this and all future upcoming blogs.

If you still aren't sure how to protect your people when they handle hazardous chemicals and need assistance, contact Verus today. Verus has chemical management specialists that can advise and support you on how to meet your obligations.

Hazardous Chemicals & the GHS: Chemical Storage
Hazardous Chemicals & the GHS: An Introduction

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