Chemicals are common in a variety of workplaces. As part of occupational health and safety, all businesses must identify the risks of all chemicals on site and manage them in relation to transport, storage, use and disposal.

Under the Work Health and Safety Regulation 2011, a new system of chemical classification and hazard communication on labels and safety data sheets (SDS) based on the Globally Harmonised System of Classification and Labelling of Chemicals (GHS) has come into effect.

Safety obligations that existed under previous legislation for hazardous substances and dangerous goods at workplaces are now incorporated into the requirements for ‘hazardous chemicals.’

There is a five-year transitional period, during which the two systems will be able to be used concurrently.

Workplace chemicals will not need to be re-classified or re-labelled immediately. During the transition period, manufacturers may use either the GHS for classification, labelling and safety data sheets or the previous hazardous substances and dangerous goods classification systems.

By January 1, 2017, (at the end of the five-year period) all chemicals will need to be classified according to the GHS and labels and safety data sheets will need to be updated.

Safety data sheets in your workplace

Legally, anything chemical in your workplace must have a SDS. One workplace received a warning over non-compliance because it did not have a SDS for the ‘in-bowl’ toilet chemical hanging in the urinals.

You should also follow the manufacturer’s recommendations on how the chemical should be used in the SDS. If you use a surface cleaner like ‘Spray & Wipe’ in your café, the manufacturer’s SDS recommends wearing appropriate personal protective equipment and clothing to minimise exposure, and increasing ventilation when it is used.

Workplaces are dependent on the SDS produced by chemical manufacturers, who wish to minimise their liability exposure and therefore err on the side of caution when producing the sheets. At which quantity of Spray & Wipe should protective clothing be worn? The SDS does not make it clear, so does it mean your wait staff should suit up and wear a mask each time they clean a table? While some SDS identify between bulk use and consumer use, others do not.

How to use safety data sheets

The key to using a SDS is to learn how to separate the ‘wheat from the chaff’ and concentrate on the information that affects your health or endangers coworkers or the general public.

While SDSs contain a lot of useful information, there are three problem areas in their use:

1) Non standardisation of format

Contractors do not have the ability and are not required to generate a SDS. Manufacturers and importers must furnish them but can do so in any format they choose. The information must include specific items – such as manufacturer’s contact details, ingredients, handling and so forth – but it can be arranged in countless ways. Standardisation would make this easier. The bottom line is if there is anything you don’t understand on a SDS, ask for help.

2) Complexity

Manufacturers and importers are required to develop and provide the information. Some provide the bare minimum, others are overwhelming in detail. Chemicals with long detailed sheets of information cannot automatically be assumed to be hazardous nor can chemicals with little information be assumed to be safe. A careful assessment of the data must be made no matter how or to what detail the information is presented.

3) Trade screen

Manufacturers can legally refuse to furnish information by claiming trade secret status.

Five Keys To Using Safety Data Sheets

  1. If you don’t understand, ask.
  2. Always know where they are kept for your work area.
  3. Refer to them before using any product for the first time.
  4. Review them anytime a question arises and you are not sure of the answer.
  5. Always follow the instructions given on the SDS for safe working with chemicals.