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Stealth chemicals on the shop floor

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EXPOSURE to asbestos fibre and the huge political and economic cost to the community has been a major ongoing concern in Australia’s newspapers and in trade union staged marches on State Parliament in recent weeks.

But before this publicity brought this negligent exposure to this deadly, hazardous chemical to the fore, it was going on for many years, even decades, unknown to workers. This is just the tip of the iceberg in regard to chemical exposure on the shop floor.

A national study has revealed that in excess of 2200 Australians die each year as a result of exposure to hazardous chemicals, including asbestos.

Nicnas, an Australian Government department of health and ageing initiative, records 645 hazardous chemicals on its database. While the Plastics and Chemical Industry Association (PACIA) website says that around 48,000 persons are employed in Australia’s petrochemical industry.

However, these figures do not include those employed in the thousands of SMEs around Australia where hazardous chemicals are used in manufacturing.

More complex chemicals

What is really frightening is that this exposure is growing exponentially with the rapid explosion in the use of ever more complex and toxic chemicals in a wide range of industry types, just two examples of which are the thousands of SME motor-car repair businesses and furniture manufacturing shops across Australia.

The small size and few employees of these businesses compel them to use every cost cutting opportunity in order to survive from one year to the next. These cost cutting measures frequently require the use of “smarter” chemicals that help achieve the same result at reduced cost.

The problem is that the chemicals are frequently new generation hybrids including complex toxic substances. Often no MSDS is available.

Let us take but one example of these hazardous chemicals to illustrate this growing problem. Mention the word ‘isocyanates’ to anyone in the two industries mentioned above and you will be met with a blank stare and a mumbled –“Isowhat ?”

Few, if any worker or boss in these industries will even ‘recognise’ this very dangerous chemical about which they should have in place, proper, statutorily obligated safety records, an MSDS and a safety management system.

Isocyanates are not only commonly found in products used in the two industries mentioned above, but are also widely found in adhesives, lacquers, rust treatment preparations, paint removers and resins. Moreover this chemical is frequently an additive in products used in the kitchen making, carpentry and cabinet-making businesses.

Few factory managers and even fewer process workers read labels on chemical substance containers. They may see the red diamond and Class 3 flammable warning but that is as far as most read.

Unfortunately ‘isocyanates’ is invariably very difficult to find on the label and most users will not even know it is present. All the more reason why businesses using ‘chemicals’ whether cleaning detergents through to the ‘nasties’ really need to include the statutory requirements set down above in to their management systems for the sake of their duty of care to their workers.

The place to start doing this is to obtain a copy of the MSDS for the product and carefully study the contents listed. Check if any of the ingredients are toxins listed in the NSW OH&S regulations or the Nicnas or NOHSC database. Only in this way can you hope to meet your statutory obligations and avoid an injury with a potential criminal prosecution for a manager.

Isocyanates are but one example of these stealth chemicals. For a full list see the OHS Regulations NSW 2001 Clauses: 158, 164 and 165 and visitwww.nicnas.gov.au/Industry/AICS/Search/asp.

The way in which these toxic chemicals most often come to the attention of the operator or supervisor for example in the case of isocyanates, is if the worker complains of difficulty with breathing or ongoing drowsiness or face or hand skin patches that are persistently itchy.

More serious than these are the effects of long-term exposure – and these can include major skin damage, or nervous system, kidney, liver and respiratory tract damage.

Managing these chemicals?

Step One as regards isocyanates, as with any risk management approach, is to identify the hazard.

To this end, conduct an audit of your entire business. List them in a Hazardous Chemicals Register (Clause 167 NSW Regs while in Victoria see Part 3 Division 2 – employers duties). This document will have one column that identifies whether you have on hand the MSDS or not, along with several more listing key criteria of the substance.

For Step Two you either have an MSDS or you will need to get one. This should be obtained free of charge from the supplier. Study the MSDS, particularly the sub-head usually called the chemical constituents/ingredients. This is where you will most easily find the listing of isocyanates. The MSDS will further advise of the ‘acute’ effects and the ‘chronic’ effects of the chemical.

In the case of toxic dangerous chemicals the MSDS is always headed “Hazardous” according to the criteria of the Regulatory Authority. This should serve as a heads-up warning that you must now take steps to - as per risk management principles - assess the hazard and control same.

Step Three, the assessment of the chemical, takes place in the context of the process in which same is being used. A proper, formal chemical risk assessment document would be used in conducting the risk assessment. This would include reviewing information about the substance, analysing the nature of the work performed and how you are using the substance and then evaluating the risk.

It would be essential to work through a proper, compliant format and to record the assessment (Clause 168 NSW Regs ) carried out. Section 15(a) of the NSW Act requires that workers where the chemical is in use be consulted and their input be taken in to consideration. Refer also to Clauses 167 /8 of the OHS regulations.

A copy of the risk assessment must be made available to an employee who may be exposed to the chemical and who wishes to know more. Clause 171 sets out a list of the documentation to be kept by the employer, some for five years and some for as long as 30 years.

This commences with induction training and can extend to an employer ceasing to conduct business in NSW and the obligations on that employer. All serious statutory requirements must be complied with. The Victorian legislation has equivalent statutory requirements.

Step Four is a natural progression from the assessment. Proceed on to the risk control leg of the three-legged risk management exercise. Examine all the options for managing the hazards of the chemical as identified by the MSDS, remembering that use of personal protective equipment (PPE ) is the least favoured of the options for the regulatory authorities.

Guidance should be sought in Clause 5 of the OH&S NSW regulations, which list the hierarchy of controls of risks acceptable to regulatory authorities. See in Victoria Section 312 / 314 of the Act.

Step Five is a combination of education and information dissemination. The information is really already in your hands once you have the MSDS. However, simply holding the MSDS in a folder in an office does not satisfy the requirements of the law.

The education element consists of carrying out training (tool box talks) that may occupy no more than say 15 minutes. While information dissemination really needs a proper format. A most important element of the exercise is the establishment and implementation of your records evidencing the education and the dissemination programs. In Victoria see Section 321 of the Act.

As regards isocyanates the respiratory protection required by law is an air-supplied respiratory protection unit. A face mask of any type is not acceptable. AS 1716 establishes the standard required, anything less may amount to criminal negligence.

It used to be the case that risks in the workplace had an instantaneous effect.

For example when sawing timber the blade might hit a knot and cause a worker to perhaps lose an eye or suffer an injury to a hand, perhaps the loss of one or more fingers.

The new risk of injury may come now from “stealth chemicals”. What is very worrying about these stealth chemicals is that they are on the increase, employers are simply not aware of the dangers inherent in their use and the stakes for employers are now even higher.

This is readily apparent from the pain suffered by the asbestos victims, still being played out on the front pages of our daily newspapers.

*Ray Schaffer is principal consultant with RMH Schaffer and Co , health, safety and environment consultants, 02 9878 0613. Visit www.environmentdiy.com.au, pose a question and receive an answer at no cost.

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