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Working with hazardous materials

Pure substances or mixtures with a chemical hazard potential are referred to as hazardous materials. A range of laws and regulations must be observed when working with hazardous materials.

Definition of hazardous materials

Hazardous materials can be pure substances (elements and compounds) as well as mixtures of these substances. Based on the Ordinance on Hazardous Substances, these materials are distinguished according to their properties:

  1. Hazardous materials that are labelled as such
  2. CMR substances: These are materials that are carcinogenic, mutagenic or toxic to reproduction
  3. Substances that carry a risk of explosion
  4. Substances that are created during the manufacture or use of materials listed under 1), 2) or 3)
  5. Substances that are covered by points 1 to 3 but can still pose a risk to the health and safety of employees due to their physico-chemical or toxic properties
  6. Substances for which an occupational exposure limit has been defined

The terms "substance" and "material" are used interchangeably to refer to both individual substances/materials as well as preparations and articles (mixtures).

Substances that pose a risk due to radioactivity are not covered by this definition of hazardous materials.

Uniform law for handling hazardous materials: the GHS

When it comes to working with hazardous materials, numerous directives, regulations and standards exist that must be observed to ensure the health and safety of employees. These are all based on the fundamental legislation. The old HSID system for classifying and labelling materials according to the directives 67/548/EEC (Dangerous Substances Directive) and 1999/45/EC (Dangerous Preparations Directive) is now fully replaced by the GHS. The GHS is the UN's "Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labelling of Chemicals", which unifies the various international systems for classifying and labelling chemicals. The law is used both for packaging and in material safety data sheets.

The aim of this unified, international system is minimise the risk to human health and safety as well as to the environment – both in the area of transport and in the manufacture and use of hazardous materials. The law ensures the use of standardised hazard symbols, risk and safety phrases to classify the hazardousness of a substance.

Where hazard symbols previously had a square shape and orange background, the GHS now employs a diamond shape with a red border and white background.

Working with hazardous materials: duties of the employer

The employer bears a high degree of responsibility towards employees when it comes to handling hazardous materials. This includes compliance with legal regulations, directives and standards designed to protect employees and ensure their health and safety. 

As a rule, the following principles apply when working with hazardous materials:

  • Avoid
  • Contain
  • Protect

The use of hazardous materials should thus be minimised where possible. When working with hazardous materials, the relevant working areas should ideally be separated or specially secured. In addition, employees must be provided with free personal protective equipment where necessary.

Employers must also note the following:

  • The principle of due diligence applies: Is the substance a hazardous material?
  • Hazardous materials are subject to labelling requirements
  • The relevant safety data sheets for handling hazardous materials must be accessible to employees
  • Warning signs must be in place
  • Employees must receive regular, specific instruction in working with hazardous materials (operating instructions)
  • Depending on the hazardous materials involved, employees may have to undergo regular preventive medical examinations with occupational health practitioners
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