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.

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 is a naturally occurring mineral found in most rocks, sand, clay as well as in products such as bricks, concrete, tile and composite stone.

Crystalline silica - 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 crystalline silica ranked the second highest priority.

Uses for crystalline silica

Crystalline silica is a very common mineral used in the manufacture of many types of building products for use in construction.

Engineered materials containing silica, such as composite stone, are used to fabricate kitchen benches and counter tops.

Workers can come across silica when undertaking construction works that require excavation or tunnelling through sandstone.

Harms from crystalline silica

Very fine particles of crystalline silica dust present a hazard when inhaled into the lungs. Airborne dust is most likely to occur when materials or products containing silica in the workplace are cut, sanded, drilled or any other job which creates fine dust.

Depending on factors such as how much dust a worker breathes in and for how long, crystalline silica can cause the following health effects:

  • silicosis – a scarring of the lung which can result in a severe shortness of breath and is not reversible. Severe cases can result in complications leading to death
  • lung cancer
  • kidney disease.

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

Protecting yourself and others

  • Eliminate where possible, tasks that generate dust
  • Substitute where possible (eg – composite stone) 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 – respirators)
  • Avoid using compressed air to remove or clean settled dust
  • Follow instructions and controls outlined in safety data sheets and product labels

Technical information on crystalline silica

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

Health monitoring webinar

Register for our interactive online webinar to learn more about health monitoring of workers who work with hazardous chemicals.

The webinar starts a 10:30 am on Monday 23 October and goes for around one hour. A recording of the webinar will be made available a few days later.

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.

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.

For manufacturers and importers

Tell your customers about it

The people you supply hazardous chemicals to must know the risks and how to work safely. You must:

  • classify any chemical that may be hazardous
  • prepare an appropriate safety data sheet as soon as you make or import the chemical and before you give the chemical to a workplace.

You must also review the safety data sheet at least every five years (or if anything changes), and give a copy to anyone who asks for it, or who is likely to be affected by the chemical.

Disclose information for emergencies

In an emergency situation, details about hazardous chemicals, including the chemical identity of its ingredients, is important.

If a doctor or emergency service worker asks you for information about your chemicals, you must provide it to them.

Pack and label it properly

You must pack and label your chemicals correctly.

You also need to label your chemicals correctly using the Globally Harmonised System (GHS) or other relevant system.

For suppliers

There's an age limit

You can only let workers who are 16 or older fill up customers’ containers or vehicles with fuel or other flammable gases/liquids.

Check packing and labelling

If your hazardous chemicals aren’t correctly packed or labelled, you can’t supply them to another workplace.

Give up-to-date safety information

When you supply a workplace with a chemical, you must also provide them with information so they can store and use it safely. Make sure you provide a current safety data sheet with the chemical the first time you supply it, and replace it with an updated version whenever one is produced. If your customer asks for a new copy, you must give it to them.

Supplying prohibited goods

You must not supply prohibited carcinogens unless they are to be used for research or analysis, or supply has been approved by us. Keep a record of who you supplied the chemical to and how much you supplied – and keep a copy of the approval notice from us.

Transporting hazardous chemicals

Hazardous chemicals transported on the road must also meet the packing and labelling requirements of the Australian Dangerous Goods Code. More information about safe transport of hazardous chemicals is available from the NSW Environment Protection Authority.

General requirements

Check labels and clean containers

Make sure your hazardous chemicals are always properly labelled, even after they have been transferred from the original container. Once emptied, clean the container before you use it again.

You also need to label or sign-post any pipework that contains hazardous chemicals.

Obtain and provide safety information

Get a current safety data sheet before you use any hazardous chemical and, where you can, when a hazardous chemical is first supplied to your workplace. You must also obtain any updated safety data sheets and ensure your workers, emergency services personnel or anyone who asks is provided with that information.

Keep a register

Keep a register that lists all the hazardous chemicals (except certain consumer products and certain chemicals in transit) used, stored and handled at your workplace. It must include the current safety data sheet for each chemical listed.

Make sure everyone affected by the hazardous chemicals can view the register.

Keep a manifest

You may need to keep a manifest of hazardous chemicals. Your manifest must include the type, quantity and location of the chemicals, a site plan and contact details for emergency services.

Notify us

Notify us if you have:

  • hazardous chemicals in excess of the ‘manifest quantity’
  • made a significant change to the quantity, location or way you store the chemicals
  • stopped using or storing the chemicals
  • abandoned an underground, partially underground or fully mounded tank that was once used to store flammable gases or liquids
  • changed contact details or ownership of the business
  • never received or have lost your acknowledgement notification, or it has a printing error.

Display placards and signs

Display placards to assist emergency services if you store hazardous chemicals that exceed the ‘placard quantity’.

A HAZCHEM placard must be displayed on the outside of your workplace and other placards must be displayed at other locations around your workplace.

Also display warning signs near the chemical storage area.

Prevent contamination of personal items

Make sure food, cosmetics, face washers and the like are not contaminated by chemicals used or handled in the workplace.

Keep chemicals stable

Keep the ingredients and temperature stable, to ensure the chemicals don’t change.

Manage spills and leaks

Wherever chemicals are used, handled or stored, have something handy to enable spills and leaks to be contained.

Avoid damage to chemicals

Make sure chemical containers and pipework can’t be damaged in any way.

Install appropriate fire protection

If you have certain quantities of hazardous chemicals in use, fire extinguishers will not be sufficient and suitable fire protection and firefighting equipment will be necessary. Consider installing monitors, alarms and automatic sprinkler systems.

Have emergency equipment and plans

Make sure your equipment is always available and operational for emergencies. Where manifest quantities of hazardous chemicals are involved, give a copy of the emergency plans to your primary emergency service organisation and neighbouring sites so responses to emergencies are coordinated.

Issue safety equipment

Safety equipment must be given to anyone who needs it.

Have proper storage and handling systems

The manufacturer’s instructions must be followed for all systems installed to store and handle chemicals. Anyone who operates, tests, maintains or decommissions the system must be trained.

Also make sure chemical containers are secured to stable foundations and supports.

When you no longer need to store or handle chemicals, clear any chemical handling system of chemicals. If that’s not possible, label the system listing any hazardous chemicals not removed.

When you no longer need to store chemicals in an underground tank, you must remove the tank.

If your tank – whether underground, partially underground or fully mounded – has been used to store flammable gases or liquids, notify us when it has been removed.

Check your workers’ health

Let your workers know their health will be monitored if they are likely to be exposed to hazardous chemicals.

Workers who are regularly exposed to certain hazardous chemicals must undergo health checks by an appropriate registered medical practitioner.

If a worker is exposed to chemicals, you need to tell a doctor your name, the worker’s name and date of birth, and describe the work and how long the worker has been doing it. They will provide a health report outlining your worker’s test results, negative or otherwise, and they’ll let you know if your worker needs counselling, and whether they can continue work or not. Make sure you give a copy of the report to the worker and to any other employer who may be responsible for the worker’s health and wellbeing. Also give a copy to us if it contains negative results or any recommendations. You will need to keep a copy of the report for at least 30 years. Don’t show the report to anyone without either the worker’s consent or professional confidentiality.

Supervise your workers

You must supervise anyone who is likely to be exposed to hazardous chemicals, including those who use the handling and storage systems.

Using prohibited carcinogens and chemicals

There are certain carcinogens and chemicals you can’t use, unless they are used for research or approved by us. Or, in the case of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), you are getting rid of them or using them in existing electrical equipment or construction material.

If you want permission to use a prohibited or restricted carcinogen, fill in this application form.If permission is granted, you need to keep a copy of your authorisation for at least 30 years.

You must give any worker who uses a prohibited or restricted carcinogen a written statement outlining:

  • the name of the carcinogen
  • how long they have been exposed to it
  • where they can get records of possible exposure
  • what health tests are recommended.

You must also keep a record of the names of all those likely to be exposed to these carcinogens, together with their address and date of birth.

Managing pipelines

If you own a pipeline used to transfer hazardous chemicals, you are responsible for all the risks associated with it.

If your pipeline carries certain chemicals and crosses a public place, the builder of the pipeline must let us know the owner’s/operator’s name, the specifications of the pipeline, how it will be used and maintained, and the intended emergency procedures. We need to be told this information before the pipeline is commissioned, before chemicals are put into it, and if it is repaired or no longer used.

The operator of the pipeline is responsible for ensuring it is properly labelled and sign-posted. They must also let us know the correct classification of the chemical, and the names of the supplier and receiver.

For more information or to notify us of a pipeline email serviceDGEM@safework.nsw.gov.au

Legislation and codes

For the specific laws about working safely with hazardous chemicals, see clauses 328 - 391 of the Work Health and Safety Regulation 2017.

There are also general work health and safety laws that will apply to you in any situation, including when working with hazardous chemicals.

For more specific information about exposure standards, safety data sheets, health monitoring and emergency plans, see the code of practice for managing risks of hazardous chemicals in the workplace.

For information about label elements, special labelling situations, updating labels and hazardous pictograms, see the code of practice for labelling of workplace hazardous chemicals.

For information about preparing, reviewing and amending safety data sheets, see the code of practice for the preparation of safety data sheets for hazardous chemicals.

More information