Hazardous chemicals

Exposure to chemicals is 100% preventable. Without the proper controls it can cause cancer, respiratory illnesses, skin and eye irritations, and fire and explosion-related injuries.

There are literally thousands of hazardous chemicals used in the workplace – paints, pesticides, cleaners and fuels, to name a few. They come in various forms – powders, solids, liquids and gases.

Priority hazardous chemicals

Reducing high levels of exposure to hazardous chemicals at work through the safe use, storage and handling of chemicals is an essential part of creating a healthy, safe and productive workplace.

Through the implementation of the Hazardous chemicals and materials exposures baseline reduction strategy, the level and impact of workplace exposures to hazardous chemicals will be identified and reduced.

Select the images below to see more information on formaldehyde and crystalline silica, the top two priority chemicals identified from a review of national and international sources.


Formaldehyde is a colourless, irritating and unpleasant smelling flammable gas. It is soluble  in water and often used as water based solution known as formalin.

Formaldehyde - a priority chemical

The NSW Work health and safety roadmap has a target of a 30 per cent reduction in serious injuries and illnesses by 2022, which comprises a reduction in exposures to hazardous chemicals and materials. A priority list of 100 chemicals, based on national and international research was developed, in which ranked formaldehyde first.

Read our general fact sheet (also available in Arabic, Chinese, Hindi and Vietnamese).

Uses of formaldehyde

Formaldehyde solutions (formalin) are used in hospitals, pathology and anatomy laboratories, and funeral homes for embalming, foundries and leather tanneries. Large quantities of formaldehyde-based resins are used as glue for manufacturing wood pressed products such as particleboards and plywood. It is also present in low concentrations in a variety of consumer products.

Harms from formaldehyde

Formaldehyde/formalin, depending on factors such as the concentration, can cause the following health effects:

  • irritation, burns  and allergic reactions with direct skin contact
  • serious damage with direct eye contact
  • eye, nose and throat irritation through inhalation.

Very low concentrations of formaldehyde can cause skin reactions in allergic individuals. Exposure to formaldehyde may cause nasal cancers, however adequate controls such as minimising the generation of vapours and mists and use of personal protective equipment can prevent any hazardous exposures and illness in the workplace.

Protecting yourself and others

  • Eliminate the use of formaldehyde if reasonably practicable.
  • Substitute high concentration formalin products with low concentrations.
  • Ensure effective ventilation is in place to reduce exposure to formaldehyde.
  • Use appropriate tools to avoid  skin contact with formaldehyde solutions.
  • Use well maintained and appropriate personal protective equipment such as respirators, safety goggles and gloves.
  • Ensure adequate engineering (eg – local exhaust ventilation) and personal protective controls are in place when  undertaking high exposure activities.
  • Follow instructions and controls outlined in safety data sheets and product labels.

Technical information on formaldehyde

More detail on formaldehyde can be found in our formaldehyde technical fact sheet.

Crystalline silica

Crystalline silica (quartz) is a naturally occurring mineral found in most rocks, stone, sand and clay as well as in products such as bricks, concrete, tile and manufactured stone.

Read more below and take a look at our:

Working safely with crystalline silica - video safety alert

Crystalline silica - a priority chemical

The NSW Work Health and Safety Roadmap has a target of a 50 per cent reduction in serious injuries and illnesses by 2022, including reducing exposures to priority hazardous chemicals and materials by 30%. Through the implementation of the Hazardous chemicals and materials exposures baseline reduction strategy (PDF, 3004.06 KB), the level and impact of workplace exposures to hazardous chemicals will be identified and reduced.

A priority list of 100 chemicals based on national and international research was developed, in which crystalline silica ranked the second highest priority.

Uses for crystalline silica

Crystalline silica is a very common mineral found in natural and manufactured stone as well as building products such as concrete, tiles and bricks.

Engineered materials containing silica, such as manufactured stone, are used in kitchen benches and counter tops.

Workers will also come across silica when excavating or tunnelling through sandstone.

Typical crystalline silica levels in different materials;

  • Sand, sandstone - 70-100%
  • Manufactured stone - 93% or higher
  • Granite - 20-45%, typically 30%
  • Concrete, mortar - 25-70%
  • Calcium-silicate bricks - 50-55%
  • Slate - 20-40%
  • Brick - Up to 30%
  • Fibre cement sheets - 10-30%
  • Demolition dust - 3-4%
  • Marble - 2%
  • Limestone - 2%

Harms from crystalline silica

Very fine particles of crystalline silica dust, which are 100 times smaller than a grain of sand, (known as respirable crystalline silica) is harmful when inhaled into the lungs. Airborne dust is most likely to occur when materials or products containing silica are cut, sanded, drilled or handled in any other way that creates fine dust.

Exposure to silica dust can lead to a number of serious illnesses such as:

  • silicosis – a scarring of the lung which can result in a severe shortness of breath and is not reversible. Severe cases can be terminal or require a lung transplant
  • lung cancer
  • kidney disease
  • chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)

Adequate controls such as limiting the generation of airborne dust and use of personal protective equipment can prevent hazardous exposures and illness in the workplace.

The workplace exposure standard (WES) for respirable crystalline silica (RCS) is 0.1 mg/m3 8 hour Time-Weighted Average. Guidance on interpreting exposure standards is available in the Guidance on the Interpretation of Workplace Exposure Standards for Airborne Contaminants (Safe Work Australia).

Protecting yourself and others

  • eliminate where possible, tasks that generate dust
  • substitute where possible with safer products
  • use exhaust ventilation systems to capture and remove dust at the source
  • use dust capture systems on portable tools
  • apply water suppression systems to reduce dust generation
  • use well maintained and appropriate personal protective equipment (eg – face masks)
  • use water or an approved vacuum cleaner (class M or H) to clean up dust and avoid using compressed air or sweeping
  • follow instructions and controls outlined in safety data sheets and product labels
  • conduct regular air monitoring to confirm everyone at your workplace is working within safe levels of exposure.

Health Monitoring

Workers who may be at significant risk of exposure to crystalline silica must be offered regular health monitoring (chest x-rays and lung capacity tests) by their employer. Insurance & Care NSW (icare) offers subsidised health monitoring to businesses across NSW through its Lung Screen service.

Complete our health monitoring webinar to understand when health monitoring is required and your regulatory requirements. Eligible businesses who complete the webinar can apply  for a $500 small business rebate.

Other guides and resources

Safe Work Australia

Australian Institute of Occupational Hygienists (AIOH) guidance

HSE (UK) guidance

Breathe Freely (UK) initiative

United States Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) guidance

US Department of Labor

  • ‘stop silicosis’ video

Australian Tunnelling Society

Corrosive substance pictogram
Hazardous chemicals - the big picture

Over the past four years there have been more than 6500 injuries in NSW workplaces as a result of poor handling or storage of hazardous chemicals. Eight people died and more than 250 are now permanently disabled.

Find out more

Must do’s

There are specific laws about working safely with hazardous chemicals. Here we summarise those laws and give you some practical tips.

Some laws relate to manufacturers and importers of hazardous chemicals, some relate to suppliers, while others are more general.


Globally harmonised system (GHS)

The GHS is a single internationally agreed system of chemical classification and hazard communication through labelling and safety data.
Are you GHS ready?

Key information on hazardous chemicals

Aerial view of industry and shipping on Kooragang Island - Newcastle Australia. This industrial area and port is home to Heavy Industry in the Hunter Valley.
Major hazard facilities

Information for licensed major hazard facilities in NSW.

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