Hazardous substances health and safety guide

Guidance for employers on how to protect employees from the workplace health and safety risks of hazardous substances.


Hazardous substances

Unsafe use and handling of hazardous substances can cause cancer, skin disease, poisoning and respiratory illness.

Hazardous substances are substances that have the potential to harm people's health. They can be solids, liquids or gases. When used in the workplace, they are often in the form of fumes, dusts, mists and vapours.

Examples of hazardous substances include:

  • acute toxins such as cyanide
  • substances harmful after repeated or prolonged exposure such as mercury and silica
  • corrosives such as sulphuric acid and caustic soda
  • irritants such as ammonia
  • sensitising agents such as isocyanates
  • carcinogens (cancer-causing substances) such as benzene and vinyl chloride

A substance is defined as hazardous if it satisfies the criteria in Part 3 (health hazards) of the Globally Harmonised System (GHS) of Classification and Labelling of Chemicals with some exceptions.

Carcinogenic substances

Carcinogenic substances are hazardous substances that can cause cancer.

Substances scheduled as carcinogens are listed in schedule 10 (Prohibited) and schedule 11 (Restricted) of the Occupational Health and Safety Regulations 2017 (OHS Regulations 2017).

A schedule 10 substance cannot be used in any workplace other than a laboratory that is licensed by WorkSafe Victoria.

A schedule 11 substance requires a licence to be used in a workplace.

Exposure to hazardous substances can affect your health

Hazardous substances can be inhaled or absorbed through the skin and can cause both immediate and long-term health problems, including:

  • poisoning
  • irritation
  • chemical burns
  • sensitisation
  • cancer
  • birth defects

Hazardous substances can cause diseases of certain organs such as

  • skin
  • lungs
  • liver
  • kidneys
  • nervous system

Level of risk

The level of risk posed by a hazardous substance depends on:

  • the substance's form, concentration, toxicity, health effects, and physical and chemical properties
  • the nature of the work. For example, how the substance is used or handled, quantities and routes of exposure.

Legal duties

Occupational Health and Safety Act 2004 (OHS Act)

The OHS Act came into effect on 1 July 2005. It sets out the key principles, duties and rights in relation to occupational health and safety. The duties imposed by the Act cover a wide variety of circumstances, recognising the need for a duty-holder to have flexibility in determining what needs to be done to comply.

The OHS Act is based upon the following key health and safety principles:

  • All people — employees and the general public — should have the highest level of protection against risks to health and safety.
  • Those who manage or control things that create health and safety risks in the workplace are responsible for eliminating or reducing the risks, so far as is reasonably practicable.
  • Employers should be proactive in promoting health and safety in the workplace.
  • Information and ideas about risks and how to control them should be shared between employers and employees.
  • Employees are entitled — and should be encouraged — to be represented in relation to health and safety issues.

Occupational Health and Safety Regulations 2017 (OHS Regulations 2017)

The hazardous substances part of the OHS Regulations 2017 (chapter 4) applies to the supply and use of hazardous substances in Victorian workplaces in order to control injuries, health effects and death resulting from exposure to hazardous substances and carcinogens.

The Regulations impose specific legal responsibilities on employers, as well as self-employed persons, employees, manufacturers, importing suppliers and suppliers.


As an employer, you have a general duty to make your workplace safe, as well as the following duties in relation to hazardous substances.

Control risk

Employer must so far as is reasonably practicable, eliminate any risks associated with hazardous substances in your workplace.

If it’s not reasonably practicable to eliminate the risk, you must reduce the risk, as far as reasonably practicable, by:

  • using a less hazardous substance or a safer form of the substance
  • isolating employees from exposure, or
  • using engineering controls

An employer must review and, if necessary, revise any measures implemented to control risks associated with hazardous substances at the workplace, if the employer receives advice from a registered medical practitioner, or at the request of a health and safety representative.

An employer has a duty to consult employees and health and safety representatives when identifying hazards and deciding on control measures.

Some hazardous substances are prohibited for specific purposes such as the use of abrasives containing crystalline silica for abrasive blasting.

If any of the hazardous substances you use are scheduled carcinogens you must hold a licence to use them.

Obtain and provide information on hazardous substances

Employers are required to:

  • obtain a current Safety Data Sheet (SDS) for each hazardous substance
  • make the SDS accessible to employees
  • keep a list of product names and SDSs for all hazardous substances used at your workplace
  • keep a list of who use the substances or may be exposed to them
  • not alter the information on an SDS
  • ensure that containers in which hazardous substances are supplied are labelled
  • identify containers of waste

Identify hazardous substances in plant

Employers must ensure that hazardous substances contained in a piping system, process vessel or plant that forms part of a manufacturing process are identified to anyone who may be exposed to them. Use a colour-coded sign system which follows the Australian Standard AS 1345 for Identification of Contents of Pipes, Conduits and Ducts.

Conduct atmospheric monitoring and health monitoring

Employees must not be exposed to an atmospheric concentration of a hazardous substance that exceeds any relevant exposure standard.

If there is uncertainty about whether the exposure standard could be exceeded, you must:

  • carry out atmospheric monitoring
  • provide the results of the monitoring to employees
  • keep a record of the results and give the results of the monitoring to the employees involved

Under certain circumstances, you must also provide health monitoring for employees exposed to hazardous substances listed in Schedule 9 of the OHS Regulations 2017 and keep a record of the results.

Self-employed persons

Self-employed persons must ensure, as far as reasonably practicable, that people are not exposed to health and safety risks arising from your work.

Self-employed persons also have a specific duty under the hazardous substances part of the OHS Regulations 2017 not to use a prohibited substance in Schedule 6.


Employers are required to protect employees from exposure to hazardous substances in the workplace.

At the same time, employees have a general duty to take reasonable care for their own health and safety, and that of others who may be affected by their work, and to cooperate with the employer’s efforts to make the workplace safe.

This may include:

  • following workplace safety policies and procedures
  • using control measures provided
  • participating in any health surveillance as required
  • attending health and safety training
  • helping to identify hazards and risks

Manufacturers and suppliers

Manufacturers, importing suppliers and suppliers have specific duties in relation to hazardous substances used at workplaces.

Manufacturers, importing suppliers and suppliers of substances for use in a workplace must:

  • determine whether the substance is hazardous
  • prepare an SDS
  • review and revise the SDS
  • label containers of the hazardous substance
  • disclose a chemical name to a registered medical practitioner in certain circumstances

Manufacturers, importing suppliers and suppliers must provide a current SDS to any person to whom the substance is supplied and to any employer on request.

It must be supplied before the hazardous substance is used for the first time at a workplace.

Suppliers must also ensure that containers of hazardous substances are labelled.

Manufacturers, importing suppliers and suppliers must not supply a scheduled carcinogenic substance to anyone who does not hold a licence to use them.

How to comply

WorkSafe has a range of guidance materials to advise on the required processes and actions that duty-holders can take in order to meet their legal obligations.

Compliance Codes, Health and Safety Solutions and Guidance each provide detailed and specific advice for duty-holders seeking to comply with the OHS Regulations 2017.


Employees' expertise can make a significant contribution to improving workplace health and safety.

Regular, proactive consultation can help identify issues in the workplace and build a strong commitment to health and safety by including all views in the decision making process.

Under the OHS Act, employers must so far as is reasonably practicable, consult with employees when identifying and assessing hazards or risks associated with exposure to hazardous substances, and making decisions about risk control.

'Employees' includes independent contractors — and any employees of the independent contractor(s) — who perform work which the employer has, or should have, control over.

If employees are represented by health and safety representatives, then the consultation must involve those representatives.

Control risks

Work through the following steps to control risks from hazardous substances. In many instances, a combination of approaches will result in the best solution.

Review and maintain risk controls

It's important to review risk controls regularly and maintain them to ensure they are implemented correctly and continue to be effective.

Employers need to review and, if necessary, revise risk controls whenever any changes are made to the workplace that could increase risks, such as changes to the way work is done or to the substances used.

A review is also necessary if any employees suffer any health problems or if a Health and Safety Representative (HSR) requests one.

Employees and HSRs must, so far as is reasonably practicable, be consulted when reviewing risk controls.

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