When using hazardous substances, including pesticides, pest control operators (PCOs) must control any health risks associated with these substances. This is a requirement under the Occupational Health and Safety Regulations 2007 (OHS Regulations).
The OHS Regulations do not explicitly require employers to perform a risk assessment, but this duty is implied in the duty to control the risk. A risk to health cannot be effectively controlled without having done some sort of risk assessment.
Many pesticides, but not all, are classified as hazardous. However, all pesticides are toxic, and have the potential to adversely affect the health of the PCO, the public and the environment.
The department recommends that PCOs conduct a pesticide health risk assessment for every pesticide that they use in the course of their business. This is for all pesticides, regardless of whether they are classified as hazardous or not.
Occupational Health and Safety Act 2004
The Occupational Health and Safety Act 2004 (OHS Act) provides a broad framework for improving standards of workplace health and safety. The aim is to reduce work-related injury and illness by protecting employees’ health, safety and welfare at work. In turn, the OHS Act also protects the public from the health and safety risks of business activities by eliminating workplace risks at the source. The design and implementation of health, safety and welfare standards should involve employers, employees and their organisations.
Occupational Health and Safety Regulations 2007
The Occupational Health and Safety Regulations 2007 set out specific duties that are applicable to employers, manufacturers, importers and suppliers. These regulations aim to protect people at work against risks to their health associated with the use of hazardous substances.
Hazardous substances are those that have the potential to harm human health. Many pesticides are classified as hazardous according to the National Occupational Health and Safety Commission’s List of Designated Hazardous Substances or the Approved Criteria for Classifying Hazardous Substances.
If a chemical is not classified as a hazardous substance, it does not necessarily mean that it is harmless. Moreover, employers have general duties under the overarching OHS Act to ensure employees’ health is not at risk.
Pesticides are designed to kill or cause harm. Therefore, they should all be considered hazardous even if they are not officially classified as such. It is advisable, therefore, to adhere to the requirements under the regulations for all pesticides used in the course of the business of a PCO.
OHS Regulations 2007, Part 4.1 – Hazardous Substances summary
For any hazardous substance, manufacturers, importers and suppliers must:
- determine if the substance is hazardous
- prepare and provide the relevant information (Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS)/label).
For any hazardous substance, employers must:
- eliminate so far as is reasonably practicable any risk associated with hazardous substances at the employer’s workplace.
This will involve:
- eliminating or control risks to health according to the hierarchy of controls
- ensuring risk control measures are properly used and maintained
- ensuring containers are labelled
- obtaining Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) and making them available to employees
- keeping a register of substances that includes product names and MSDSs
- undertaking and recording risk assessments
- reviewing and revising risk assessments
- conducting atmospheric monitoring and health surveillance in certain circumstances
- providing information, instruction and training to employees
- consulting with health and safety representatives
- performing additional duties for scheduled carcinogens.
Employees also have a general duty of care to take reasonable care of their own health and safety, and that of others and cooperate with employer effort to make the workplace safe.
A risk assessment is the process of determining the likelihood of an adverse health effect associated with potential exposure to hazardous substances in the workplace. In other words, it is trying to work out whether the pesticide you are using is likely to affect your health because of the nature of the pesticide, and how it is handled or used.
An assessment may be conducted for a work process and may cover more than one hazardous substance. When conducting a risk assessment, the OHS Regulations require you to consider:
- each hazardous substance used
- the information on the MSDS
- the information on the manufacturer’s or importer’s label
- the nature of the work involving the use of each hazardous substance
- any information on incidents, illnesses or diseases associated with use of the hazardous substance.
Why risk assessments are necessary
PCOs are potentially at greater risk of exposure to pesticides than the general public, as they use them on a daily basis. Poisoning may occur shortly after a single exposure (acute poisoning) or gradually after repeated exposures over a period of time (chronic poisoning). Therefore, PCOs need to take greater precautions. In addition to the duty to control risk requirements of the OHS Regulations, it is advisable to perform a risk assessment to:
- eliminate or minimise the risks to health
- prevent accidents before they occur
- encourage and introduce safe work practices by identifying the risks
- ensure that relevant factors are properly considered.
How to conduct a risk assessment
1. Decide who should carry out the assessment
The person(s) chosen must have a thorough knowledge and understanding of the work practices involved with the particular pesticide under consideration.
2. Consider the substance
For the pesticide under consideration, obtain and thoroughly review the manufacturer’s or importer’s MSDS and product label. These can be obtained from your chemical supplier, chemical manufacturer or online.
To assess the risks to health effectively, you should find out how the hazardous substance and any substances generated through its use may be harmful to health.
You also need to consider the:
- routes of exposure
- form of the pesticide
- chemical and physical properties
- potential health effects.
3. Consider the nature of the work
The way in which a pesticide is used or handled will affect the level of exposure and therefore the risk to employees’ health. Different tasks associated with a particular job present different levels of risk.
Therefore, you need to divide the job into the different tasks, and assess or consider them separately. For instance, you might decide that the four main tasks are:
- loading, unloading and transportation of the pesticide
- mixing or decanting of the pesticide
- application of the pesticide
- spill management and clean up.
For each task, consider:
- Who is at risk of exposure?
- How often?
- For what period of time?
- The quantities and concentrations involved?
- The specific handling/application techniques used?
- The controls or safety measures currently in place to minimise or prevent exposure?
In addition to employees, you should consider clients, other members of the public and animals.
4. Evaluate the risk
Once you have thoroughly reviewed all available information about the pesticide and considered all of the ways that it is used in your business, you should then decide whether the controls you currently have in place to prevent or minimise exposure are adequate, or if some form of injury or illness resulting from exposure to the chemical is likely.
If you are uncertain about the risk to employees’ health, you should get further information or assistance. Any conclusion that you form needs to be supported by clear and valid evidence or reasoning.
5. Generic assessments
A single generic risk assessment may be conducted where one or more hazardous substances are used in the same or similar circumstances at more than one workplace or work area. When doing a generic risk assessment, the employer needs to ensure that all the risks associated with the hazardous substances are taken into account.
This means that you do not need to do a risk assessment for every job or site if the same pesticide is used in the same or similar ways under the same or similar circumstances.
Controlling the risks – the hierarchy of control
After conducting a risk assessment, you should identify and implement all practicable measures for eliminating or reducing the likelihood of injury, illness or disease. Risks to health should be controlled according to the hierarchy of control specified in the regulations. The hierarchy is simply a list of control measures that must be applied as far as practicable in the priority order specified.
The OHS Regulations specify a four-level hierarchy.
Level 1 – elimination
Elimination is the most effective control measure, and involves removing the risk by changing work processes or ceasing use of the product. Where elimination is not practicable, you need to reduce the risk as far as practicable by applying the controls in the order specified (as levels 2–4).
Level 2 – substitution, isolation or engineering controls
Substitution involves replacing currently used pesticides with substances that are less hazardous or toxic, or available in a less hazardous form (for example, using pellets instead of dust).
Isolation involves separating people from the pesticide by distance or barriers to prevent or reduce exposure (for example, using an extension nozzle)
Engineering controls are physical controls that:
- eliminate or reduce the generation of substances
- suppress or contain substances
- limit the area of contamination in the event of spills and leaks – for example
- bunting chemical storage shelves
- separating the driver’s cabin from chemical storage area on vehicles
- using coarse spray nozzles
- using slab injectors fitted with a safety shield
- using exhaust ventilation in chemical storage shed.
Level 3 – administrative controls
Administrative controls need to be implemented where the control measures in level 2 are not practicable or do not adequately reduce the risk. Administrative controls are systems of work or safe work practices that help to reduce employee exposure to pesticides, and include such things as:
- ensuring lids of pesticide containers are replaced securely when not in use
- cleaning up spills immediately
- prohibiting eating, drinking and smoking while using pesticides
- providing training to staff
- ensuring regular cleaning of work vehicles and PPE.
Level 4 – personal protective equipment
Where the control measures in levels 2 and 3 are not practicable or do not adequately reduce the risks, then appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) should be used in accordance with the product label or MSDS. It is likely that PPE will usually be used in combination with other control measures.
Risk assessment records
The OHS Regulations require that you document the results of the risk assessment. Risk assessment records should include the:
- names of the assessors
- date of the assessment
- workplace or processes involved
- name of the substance
- current controls in place to prevent a risk to health
- degree of exposure or nature of risk identified
- reasons or justification for decisions made about the risk
- results of any monitoring (atmospheric or health).
Recording the risk assessment should also help you to identify appropriate additional risk control measures. It needs to be made available to any employee potentially exposed to the pesticide. The level of detail in the risk assessment will depend on the level of risk involved.
Risk assessments – reviewing and revising
The OHS Regulations state that an employer must ensure that any measures implemented to control risks in relation to hazardous substances in the workplace are reviewed and, if necessary, revised:
- before any change to systems of work that is likely to result in changes to risks associated with hazardous substances in the workplace
- if advice is received from a registered medical practitioner that adverse health effects have been identified by the health surveillance
- after any incident involving a hazardous substances occurs
- if, for any reason, the risk control measures do not adequately control the risks
- after receiving a request from a health and safety representative.
Otherwise, risk assessments must be reviewed at least every 5 years.
The department recommends reviewing risk assessments each year as part of general business practices. This will involve obtaining the most recent MSDS and label for the particular pesticide under review. (MSDSs must be no older than 5 years.)
Remember that reducing risks PROACTIVELY is better than dealing with the impact and losses REACTIVELY.
Risk assessments – further information
Copies of the Hazardous Substances Code of Practice can be obtained from WorkSafe Victoria’s website.
Copies of the OHS Act or Regulations can be obtained from the Victorian Legislation and Parliamentary Documents website.
The department, in conjunction with WorkSafe Victoria, has developed resources to help pest control operators conduct pesticide health risk assessments. Copies of a risk assessment template developed by the department can be downloaded from this page.