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Chemical hazards

For: Employers and managers Information seekers

A hazardous chemical can be a solid, liquid or gas. It can be a pure substance, consisting of one ingredient, or a mixture of substances.

It can harm the health of a person who is exposed to it.

Types of chemical hazards

Chemical hazards include:

  • skin irritants
  • carcinogens
  • respiratory sensitisers.

Physicochemical hazards include:

  • chemical explosions and fire
  • corrosion
  • chemical reactions.

These hazards generally result from a substance's physical and chemical properties.

Harm from chemicals

The harmful effect on a worker’s health is from direct contact or exposure to the chemical, usually through inhalation, skin contact or ingestion.

See Responding to an incident if your workplace experiences a chemical spill or incident and you need to notify us.

If you are not sure a chemical is safe

Treat any unknown substance as a hazardous chemical until it is proven not to be hazardous.

Notify your manager if you encounter an unknown and unlabelled chemical or substance.

The ‘person conducting a business or undertaking’ (PCBU), who is usually the employer, is responsible for identifying the chemical and:

  • obtaining appropriate safety information for it, or
  • safely disposing of the unknown chemical.

What to do when you encounter a hazardous chemical

You must always follow any health and safety directions about the use of a hazardous chemical.

Always read the safety data sheet, referred to as the SDS, before you use a hazardous chemical for the first time, or any time you are unsure about the risks or necessary precautions to take.

The safety data sheet contains information on:

  • the potential hazards of the chemical, such as health, fire and environmental
  • how to work safely with the chemical product.

The safety data sheet can help reduce the risks, but not the underlying hazard, of the chemical in your workplace.

A ‘person conducting a business or undertaking’ (PCBU) must:

  • ensure their workplace has an up-to-date safety data sheet for every hazardous chemical and that it can be readily accessed by workers
  • monitor the health of workers who use hazardous chemicals. This includes workers exposed to lead and asbestos.

See guidance for some types of chemicals:

Chemical labelling and classification

Australia adopted the Globally Harmonised System of Classification and Labelling of Chemicals (GHS) under work health and safety laws on 1 January 2012.

This is an internationally agreed system of chemical classification and hazard communication through labelling and safety data sheets (SDSs) published by the United Nations.

A manufacturer or importer is responsible for determining the hazards of a chemical against specified criteria. This process is known as classification and it determines the information which must be included on labels and the safety data sheet (SDS).

Manufacturers and importers are required to label chemical containers and provide the safety data sheet for each chemical.

They must review the information in labels and the safety data sheet at least once every five years or whenever it is necessary to ensure the information is correct.

The system uses standardised information on labels and safety data sheets (SDSs).

Safety data sheets and labels must comply with the standard.Inventory already in the supply chain, labelled under the Approved Criteria for Classifying Hazardous Substances [NOHSC: 1008(2004)], may continue to be consumed.

For more information, see:

More information

  • Hazardous chemicals guides – Safe Work Australia.
  • Major hazard facilities are sites that store, handle and process large quantities of hazardous chemicals and dangerous goods. These facilities have additional requirements, including notification and licensing, which must be followed.
  • Responding to an incident if your workplace experiences a chemical spill or incident.
  • Silica (also known as crystalline silica) is silicon dioxide and classed as a schedule 14 hazardous substance.
Page last reviewed: 15 December 2019
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1300 366 979 | www.comcare.gov.au

Date printed 27 May 2020