The presence of hazardous chemicals has become an everyday part of our lives, to such an extent that we often do not even think about the possible risks in common chemicals around the house, office, or workplace. This blind acceptance of chemicals is a risk factor to accidental exposure or ingestion of toxic substances which leads to several accidental poisonings every year. It also leads to employers forgetting to do a survey for hazardous chemicals in the workplace, and not implementing the required control measures to protect employees from exposure.

To address this common oversight, it is important to first understand what qualifies as a hazardous chemical substance. A chemical substance is any toxic, harmful, corrosive, irritating, asphyxiate substance or mixture of substances that creates a health hazard. This definition includes most chemicals as they can all be hazardous to health when used incorrectly, including paint, pesticides, types of fuel, lead, asbestos, dust, fumes, and cleaning chemicals. Workplace exposure to hazardous chemicals can lead to acute or long-term adverse health effects.

The risks vary depending on the type of industry and chemicals used, however it would be foolish to think that workplace chemical exposure does not affect every workplace, including the office. A simple oversight such as leaving a container with a chemical substance unlabelled can lead to an accidental exposure and/or poisoning.  The Hazardous Chemical Substances Regulations of 1995 was drafted to provides guidelines for employers to reduce the risk of exposure to hazardous chemical substances in the workplace.

The bedrock of controlling exposure to hazardous chemical substances is the risk assessment. This assessment entails a careful examination of the chemicals in a workplace that can could harm employees on exposure and determining which precautions and/or controls need to be implemented to prevent harm.

During an assessment, the following information must be considered:

  • The hazardous chemical substance to which an employee may be exposed
  • The possible effects the chemical can have on an employee
  • Where the chemical can be found as well as the physical form in which it is likely to be
  • The routes through which an employee may absorb the chemical and the extent of any possible exposure
  • The nature of the work processes
  • Any reasonable deterioration, or failure, in control measures

Aside from failing to comply with the regulation, a failure to conduct an assessment of the hazardous chemical substances in a workplace means that employers would be denied an opportunity to identify the essential information required to ensure the health and safety of their employees. Employers must provide the information gleaned from such an assessment to employees through training on the hazardous chemical substances in the workplace. They must also provide the required personal protective equipment for the chemical in use, safe storage and labelling of containers of toxic chemicals, as well as the disposal procedures.

Compliance to occupational health and safety legislation in South Africa is on average low and the number of preventable workplace accidents and injuries – including exposure to toxic chemicals – reflect this. The assessment and implementation of hazardous chemical substances control policies and training will go a long way to increasing this compliance while also protecting the health and wellbeing of anyone entering the workplace.