Hazardous chemicals: from mushroom farms to stonemasons

Between 2012 and 2015, there were more than 6000 injuries in NSW workplaces as a result of workers’ handling, storing or using hazardous chemicals unsafely.

Technician working with chemicals

Eight people died and more than 250 are now permanently disabled.

These fatalities and injuries are 100 per cent preventable when the workplace is safe and the simplest of control measures are used, like ventilators, respirators, gloves and goggles.

After consultation and negotiation with key stakeholders, we have identified the top 10 ‘priority chemicals’ used in NSW workplaces.

Over the next five years, inspectors will contact more than 10,000 workplaces to help businesses use these chemicals safely.

Initially, the focus will be on the top two chemicals – formaldehyde and crystalline silica – which can cause anything from allergic skin reactions to lung disease.

Inspectors will visit workplaces where formaldehyde is likely to be found, such as hospitals, laboratories, manufacturers of wood-pressed products (such as MDF board), poultry and mushroom farms, and funeral homes.

They will also visit workplaces where crystalline silica is present, workplaces where tunnels and roads are constructed, as well as stonemasons and manufacturers of polished stone benches.

A New South Wales parliamentary inquiry into the Dust Diseases Scheme was told that silicosis had become a huge problem in the manufactured stone industry, particularly in small businesses.

For crystalline silica workplaces, air monitoring records will be reviewed to ensure that workers are working below the limits required by the Australian Workplace Exposure Standard and that health monitoring is being undertaken.

And we will work closely with SafeWork Australia to review these standards, to ensure they meet international best practice exposure limits for crystalline silica.

We will also review current health monitoring tests, to ensure they are still the most adequate tests available for the early detection of any changes to health.

We will work in collaboration with iCare and Dust Diseases Care to make the lung bus available in regional areas and large workplaces for health monitoring tests, and will work with other government agencies and stakeholders to influence the introduction of a mandatory reporting program for occupational respiratory diseases.

By 2022, not only will serious injuries and illnesses have fallen by 30 per cent, but NSW businesses will have implemented best practice controls to eliminate or significantly reduce hazardous chemical exposures in their workplaces and exposure standards will be in line with international best practice.

Also, the testing of silicosis will be the most accurate and efficient available worldwide, a respiratory disease register will hopefully be legislated, and at-risk workers will receive and understand key safety messaging.

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