Chemicals are classified as non-hazardous or hazardous. In healthcare settings you may come into contact with several different chemical substances, for example cleaning agents, disinfecting and sterilising agents, laboratory chemicals.
In healthcare settings, you may come into contact with several different chemical substances during your work.
- cleaning agents
- disinfecting and sterilising agents
- laboratory chemicals
- medical gases
- anaesthetic agents
- cytotoxic drugs and pharmaceutical substances
Managing hazardous chemicals
Having a chemical management system helps you manage, handle and use hazardous chemical agents safely.
The system should:
- review all chemicals
- identify hazardous chemicals
- identify and assess the risks
- identify and implement controls
- evaluate and monitor
- consult with staff
Review chemicals in use
Inspect your workplace for the chemicals being used. Look at all activities and processes that produce chemicals.
Chemicals are classified as non-hazardous or hazardous.
Non-hazardous chemicals should be listed on an inventory. They must be stored and used in accordance with the manufacturer’s instructions. They do not need a risk assessment.
Hazardous chemicals must be listed on an inventory and undergo a risk assessment. You must put in place the control measures identified in the risk assessment.
Identify hazardous chemicals
Information about hazards can be found on the container label and the safety data sheet (SDS). This information is required to complete a suitable and sufficient risk assessment.
Chemical container labels
The chemical container label shows the name, address and telephone number of the supplier and product identifiers.
Where applicable it shows:
- hazard pictograms
- hazard statements
- precautionary statements
An SDS must be provided from the supplier for each chemical and contains 16 headers
For more information see HSA - Your steps to chemical safety
See also: Inventory sample
Identify the risk
Once you've identified the chemicals and their hazards, you need to assess potential exposures.
You should review each hazardous chemical and consider:
- who uses the chemical? (for example, how many people use the chemical)
- how long is each user exposed the chemical? (for example, full shift or a few minutes)
- how often is the chemical used?
- how is the chemical used? (for example, sprayed, poured)
- how will the user be exposed? (for example, skin contact, inhalation)
- how much is used?
- can non-users be exposed? (for example, people working near the task, patients, visitors, cleaning or maintenance staff)
Assess the risks
After identifying the chemical hazards and potential exposure, you must assess the risk.
You should review:
- existing control measures
- incidents that have occurred
- audit findings
Assessing the level of risk (risk rating) involves:
- the likelihood that a specified hazardous event may occur or reoccur
- the potential impact of harm or loss to staff, service users, services, environment or the organisation as a result of the event occurring
Refer to the HSE Risk Assessment Tool (PDF, 105KB, 13 pages) to determine the risk rating.
Sample risk assessments
Occupational exposure limits (OELs)
An occupational exposure limit (OEL) is the maximum concentration of a harmful substance that a person can be exposed to without getting sick or hurt. OELs are in place for some chemicals. These can be found in the approved code of practice. These chemicals are identified at the review all chemicals stage. They should be documented in your chemical inventory.
Where chemicals have OELs, the set exposure limits must not be exceeded. You should ensure the use of these chemicals is monitored regularly.
The best way to reduce risks from dangerous substances is by elimination or substitution. This is known as the STOP principle.
Replace the dangerous substance with a safer alternative. For example, using a pellet instead of a powder form of the chemical. This could significantly reduce the level of dust inhaled.
Use physical barriers to reduce risks from chemicals
You can reduce chemical exposure by placing barriers between employees and chemicals. These barriers could be fume cupboards, forced ventilation or a scavenging system.
Work practices that help to reduce risk from chemicals
Where possible, minimise employee exposure to chemicals. Try and identify work practices that may be altered to avoid exposure.
- reduce the number of employees involved in a task
- restrict access to an area where the chemical is being used
- provide chemical safety training
- store chemicals safely
- put emergency procedures in place
- provide washrooms and adequate waste disposal
- provide health surveillance as appropriate
- put in place a preventative maintenance programme for engineering controls
Personal Protective Equipment when working with chemicals
You should only use Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) when working with chemicals in an emergency. It is not an alternative to other suitable control measures. The PPE should provide adequate protection from the hazardous chemicals throughout the exposure.
Other professionals can also help with chemical safety management.
These may include:
- local safety representatives
- safety professionals
- National Health and Safety Function
- occupational health
- occupational hygienist
Managers must complete risk assessments to establish if occupational hygiene monitoring is required. If monitoring is required, engage with an occupational hygienist.
Contact the National Health and Safety Helpdesk on 1850 420 420 for a list of occupational hygienists.
Occupational hygienists improve workplace practices by identifying, evaluating and controlling exposure to chemicals and physical agents, for example, noise and dust.
Occupational hygienists usually operate as part of a multi-disciplinary team. This can include managers, safety professionals, occupational health professionals and employees. Occupational hygienists may also be known as industrial hygienists.
You must ensure that exposure to chemicals and physical agents does not exceed the occupational exposure limit.
Examples of chemical and physical agents which may be subject to occupational hygiene monitoring
Bone Cement (Methyl Methacrylate)
Maternity/Midwifery Led Unit/ Early Pregnancy room
Pulmonary Function labs
Lint /Dust Levels
Emergency Department (ED)
Occupational health provides health surveillance programmes.
Health surveillance is important for:
- detecting ill-health effects at an early stage
- providing data to help you evaluate health risks
- enabling employees to raise concerns about how work affects their health
- highlighting lapses in workplace control measures
- training employees on health effects and use of protective equipment
Risk assessments should identify the need for health surveillance. Health surveillance will identify if more controls are required.
You should refer employees with symptoms of chemical exposure to Occupational Health.
Reporting risks to the service risk register
You must report risks that cannot be controlled locally to your service's risk register. Risks are reported in line with the Integrated Risk Management Policy (PDF, 927KB, pages)