5 guiding questions on hazardous substances safety

Every year, incidents involving hazardous substances account for many deaths worldwide. What are some simple things we can ask to improve safety?

Last week a man was killed in a large explosion at Salter Cartage, a hazardous recycling disposal facility in Auckland, New Zealand which made the front page news. In a less publicised event, a man was injured in Hamilton due to a small explosion in an asphalt plant. Two reported incidents in one day.

It would be easy, particularly in the case of the Auckland incident, to reach the conclusion that these men worked in unusually dangerous environments, and decide incidents like these would be unlikely to happen at typical industrial premises. The opposite is true as they were, for all intents and purposes, similar to the majority  of industrial operations in New Zealand which hold hazardous substances in some form and quantity.

New Zealand is in the middle of a national conversation about safety in the workplace that has been running for a number of years, with the most recent events being the passing of the Health and Safety Reform Bill (NZ) by Parliament.

People are keen to work safely and to keep each other safe, but we are not yet seeing the full benefits. It is still true that you are twice more likely to die at work in New Zealand than in England, and that margin isn’t closing.

But there are some encouraging signs! We are seeing an increasing number of firms approaching us for assistance in better understanding how they can improve their management of hazardous substances. Often this is more than just meeting their legal obligations. They are trying to understand the risks and how to manage them to keep people safe.

Very few companies consciously flout the law. Generally, companies want to meet their legal obligations but have gaps in their understanding of either the law itself, or the implementation of it when it comes to hazardous substances.

Often, industries in which hazardous substances are routinely handled in large volumes (such as oil and gas) have better and more robust safety systems in place. Industries that are not dealing with these substances regularly, struggle more to get the right systems in place to ensure hazardous substances are stored and handled correctly.

It is difficult for those businesses, that are small and often have limited resources, to ensure that they focus on the right things.

To help with this, we have put together five simple questions that anyone involved with hazardous substances can ask before they start. These questions will help with getting better informed, identifying the risks and with that, reducing the chance of an accident.

  1. Do I know what substances are on site? How sure are you that you really know? If unsure – ask. Knowing what is on site, quantities, volumes is important. Where are those substances and how are they affecting the people on site?  Being aware of the hazards that these substances represent to people and property, and how they are controlled is important. Inadvertent circumvention and lack of knowledge of one or more controls is a significant cause of incidents.
  2. What is in that tank / pipe? Ask this regularly. Know what you’re working next to and what state it’s in. Situational awareness is important, and may be difficult on older sites where services and pipework may not be clearly marked or multiple products pass through the same piping.
  3. What has changed? What is different? Just because it was safe before, doesn’t mean it is safe now. Risk assessments are often done once, at the start. Change, without revisiting the risk assessment often creates the conditions for an incident. How robust is your change management process? Reassess the product, the activity and the surrounds regularly and every time prior to recommencing work.
  4. Have I made information and/or training easily available when and where it’s needed? This includes clear signage, site procedures, safety data sheets, site inductions, etc.
  5. Consider those not normally on site, particularly visitors, contractors, delivery drivers, emergency services personnel, and your neighbours.
  6. Am I confident with our emergency plan? What could go wrong? Do a risk assessment. What does the emergency plan say?
  7. Is it up to date? Is it relevant to all the products and processes?  Can I find and use it quickly? Have we practiced it? Do I know what to do and does everybody else? Have emergency services reviewed it?

Please ask these questions, ask them often, and let’s all help each other ensure a safe working environment.

Ignite Your Thinking

What Do You Think?

Kirsty Johns · 22/09/2015 1:46:37 PM
Great article, and as relevant in Australia as in NZ. Whilst we don't quite top out the numbers here, Australia does not have a good record for OHS. I worked in the UK for 8 years and didn't meet anyone who had suffered an industrial accident. Within a year of being in Australia I'd met three people who had lost fingers - and one of them went by the nickname "Fingers", making it almost a badge of honour. We need the additional thought time as much as NZ!