2018 Perspectives

Taking control of hazardous substances

Health and safety should be a core part of any business and not something you do once and file away on a shelf – it needs to be part of a daily routine. Brett Murray, general manager, WorkSafe New Zealand.

IDENTIFYING AND MANAGING the risks caused by hazardous substances is critical to preventing the deaths and injuries they cause in the workplace.

New rules for the work-related use of hazardous substances were introduced on December 1 2017. The Health and Safety at Work (Hazardous Substances) Regulations 2017 target a reduction in harm through safer management of these substances at work.

The need for this is clear when we consider the widespread use of hazardous substances and the harm they cause. About 150,000 New Zealand businesses use, manufacture, handle or store hazardous substances.

That means about one-third of our workplaces deal with substances that can kill or harm workers. This ranges from manufacturers and farmers to collision repairers, printers and hairdressers.

Each year, hazardous substances contribute to an estimated 600 to 900 deaths and 30,000 cases of serious ill health from work-related disease. This is in addition to the cases of immediate harm caused by accidents and improper use.

Managing risk

The term hazardous substance refers to any product or chemical that is explosive, flammable, oxidising, toxic, corrosive or harmful to the environment. This includes commonly used products such as solvents and cleaning solutions, petrol, diesel, LPG, and agrichemicals.

Used safely, they contribute to our economic growth and prosperity. But, poorly managed they can cause catastrophic accidents, and serious harm to people exposed to them – through inhalation, ingestion or skin contact.

That’s why we need rules controlling how the substances are manufactured, used, handled, stored and transported. The duty to manage the risks arising from hazardous substances, as it is in the Health and Safety at Work Act (HSWA), rests with the person in charge of the business or undertaking (PCBU).

Regulatory reform

Hazardous substances were identified as a key area for reform as part of the government’s response to the Pike River Mine explosion. The first step is to align the approach in managing the risk of hazardous substances by shifting the rules for the work-related use from the Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act (HSNO) to HSWA.

HSWA places the focus on proactively identifying and managing risks in the workplace to ensure that workers and others are kept safe and healthy.

WorkSafe will now administer and enforce the rules for the work-related use of hazardous substances.

The new regulations

The aim of the Hazardous Substances Regulations is to reduce both the immediate harm and longer term illness caused by the work-related use of hazardous substances. Accordingly, the Regulations establish new requirements aimed at improving how hazardous substances are managed in the workplace.

The Regulations place an expectation on everyone working with hazardous substances to adequately know and understand what the substances are, the risks they pose and how to manage those risks. New requirements around inventories, safety data sheets, labelling, signage, risk management and emergency planning will help to achieve this. There are also specific obligations on PCBUs to ensure that workers have the information, training and supervision to do their jobs safely.

To be consistent with HSWA, in many cases the duty to ensure the operation complies with the rules for the substances it has now rests with the PCBU, rather than the person in charge.

A key element in ensuring safety is to involve those who do the work as they are best placed to help manage the risks from the work and the substances. They will have the best understanding of what measures will be most practical and effective.

Information and guidance

WorkSafe has useful information and guidance on its website which is focused on the new requirements.

Now is a great time to review the measures you already have in place to make sure you are protecting your workers and others from harm. Remember, if you comply with the existing rules, you will be well on the way to complying with the new Regulations that came into force in December.

This article first appeared in Contractor Perspectives 2018.

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