Exposure to chemicals commonly used in workplaces can lead to a variety of short- and long-term health effects such as poisoning, skin rashes and disorders of the lung, kidney and liver. A quarter of all Victorian employees regularly use hazardous substances such as chemicals, flammable liquids and gases in their work.
A hazardous substance can take many forms, including gas, powder, liquid, solid or dust. The product may be pure or diluted.
Manufacturers and importers of hazardous substances are legally obliged to include warning labels and Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) with their products. (Note: MSDSs will be known as Safety Data Sheets from July 2017 when new Occupational Health and Safety Regulations come into effect.) This information offers advice on safe handling practices.
Common hazardous substances
Many industrial, agricultural and medical organisations use hazardous substances. The degree of hazard depends on the concentration of the chemical.
Common hazardous substances in the workplace include:
- caustic substances
- heavy metals, including mercury, lead, cadmium and aluminium
- petroleum products
Possible side effects of exposure to hazardous substances
Health effects depend on the type of hazardous substance and the level of exposure (concentration and duration). A hazardous substance can be inhaled, splashed onto the skin or eyes, or swallowed. Some of the possible health effects can include:
- nausea and vomiting
- skin rashes, such as dermatitis
- chemical burns
- birth defects
- disorders of the lung, kidney or liver
- nervous system disorders.
Labels and MSDS for hazardous substances
Manufacturers and importers of hazardous substances in Victoria are required by law to provide warning labels and MSDSs with their products. (Note: MSDSs will be known as Safety Data Sheets from July 2017 when new Occupational Health and Safety Regulations come into effect.)
Employers must ensure that the MSDS for each hazardous substance used in the workplace is available to employees, and that a central register of hazardous substances is established.
In accordance with the Globally Harmonised System of Classification and Labelling of Chemicals (GHS) or other methods set out in the Occupational Health and Safety Regulations, warning labels on hazardous substances should feature:
- hazard pictograms
- signal words (such as danger and warning)
- hazard statements (such as fatal if swallowed)
- precautionary statements (such as wear protective gloves).
The GHS classifies and communicates chemical hazards using internationally consistent hazard pictograms, terms and information displayed on chemical labels and MSDS.
The MSDS lists important information on handling the product safely, including:
- potential health effects
- precautions for use
- safe storage suggestions
- emergency first aid instructions
- contact numbers for further information.
Reducing exposure to hazardous substances
Suggestions on reducing exposure to hazardous substances in the workplace include:
- where possible, perform the task without using hazardous substances
- where possible, substitute hazardous substances with less hazardous alternatives (for example, use a detergent in place of a chlorinated solvent for cleaning)
- isolate hazardous substances in separate storage areas
- purge or ventilate storage areas separately from the rest of the workplace
- thoroughly train employees in handling and safety procedures
- provide personal protection equipment such as respirators, gloves and goggles
- regularly monitor the workplace with appropriate equipment to track the degree of hazardous substance in the air or environment
- regularly consult with employees to maintain and improve existing safety and handling practices.
Hazardous substances – written records
Under the Occupational Health and Safety Regulations, certain records have to be maintained if hazardous substances are used in the workplace, including:
- details of risk assessments
- results of air and environment tests, if required
- details of health monitoring of employees, if required
- records of each employee who works with a scheduled carcinogenic substance at the workplace.
Professional advice about hazardous substances
Organisations such as WorkSafe Victoria can offer valuable information on how to reduce the risks of working with hazardous substances. Publications include:
Medical help for exposure to hazardous substances
If you suspect you have been exposed to hazardous substances:
- In an emergency dial triple zero (000) for an ambulance.
- Otherwise, see your doctor immediately for treatment, information and referral.
- Notify your employer.
- Try not to handle the hazardous substance again.
Where to get help
- In an emergency, call triple zero (000).
- Your doctor
- Your workplace occupational health and safety coordinator
- WorkSafe Victoria Advisory Service Tel. (03) 9641 1444 or 1800 136 089 (toll free) – for general enquiries
- WorkSafe Victoria Emergency Response Line Tel. 13 23 60 – for employers to report fatalities and serious workplace injuries or incidents, 24 hours, 7 days
- Victorian Poisons Information Centre Tel. 13 11 26 (24 hours, 7 days) for advice about poisonings, suspected poisonings, bites and stings, mistakes with medicines and poisoning prevention advice
- Environment Protection Authority Tel. (03) 9695 2722 to dispose of industrial waste
This page has been produced in consultation with and approved by:
Department of Health and Human Services - HSP&A - Health Workforce
Content on this website is provided for education and information purposes only. Information about a therapy, service, product or treatment does not imply endorsement and is not intended to replace advice from your doctor or other registered health professional. Content has been prepared for Victorian residents and wider Australian audiences, and was accurate at the time of publication. Readers should note that, over time, currency and completeness of the information may change. All users are urged to always seek advice from a registered health care professional for diagnosis and answers to their medical questions.