The rules for managing hazardous substances have been modified to further protect New Zealanders from harm.

The hazardous substance reforms came into effect on 1 December 2017 and are part of the Government’s response to the Pike River Mine tragedy, to improve health and safety across New Zealand workplaces.

Hazardous substances is a term used to describe any product or chemical that has explosive, flammable, oxidising, toxic, corrosive or ecotoxic (harmful to the environment) properties.

It is estimated that about 150,000 New Zealand businesses (about one-third) use hazardous substances, including factories, farmers and growers, as well as small companies and sole traders, such as printers, collision repairers and hairdressers.

The reforms target a reduction in immediate harm and longer term illness caused by the work-related use of hazardous substances. Each year in New Zealand there are an estimated 600-900 deaths and 30,000 cases of serious ill health from work-related diseases. Many of these are due to exposure to hazardous substances. This is in addition to the cases of immediate harm caused by accidents and the improper use of these substances.

“Used safely, hazardous substances can contribute to the nation’s economic growth and prosperity. But they also pose real risks to the people working with or around them,” WorkSafe New Zealand’s General Manager Operations and Specialist Services Brett Murray says.

“These changes are about helping to ensure our people get home healthy and safe.”

The reforms modify the rules around hazardous substances, and the roles of the agencies that regulate them – WorkSafe and the Environmental Protection Authority (EPA). These agencies will work together even more closely to ensure these substances are managed safely.

The changes

The EPA(external link) regulates hazardous substances under the Hazardous Substances and New Organisms (HSNO) Act. WorkSafe regulates workplace health and safety under the Health and Safety at Work Act (HSWA).

The biggest change for hazardous substances is that the rules that protect people from work-related activities involving hazardous substances have moved from HSNO to HSWA.

This means most businesses who use hazardous substances at work will now only need to deal with one regulator – WorkSafe – one set of legislation and one set of guidance for anything related to health and safety.

The EPA’s role

The EPA continues to play an important part in reducing harm from hazardous substances, both to people and the environment. While it continues to be the agency responsible for approving and classifying all hazardous substances for use in New Zealand, it also has an important role at the top of the supply chain.

“We stay responsible for setting the rules for labels, safety data sheets, packaging and disposal of hazardous substances,” says Dr Fiona Thomson-Carter, General Manager of Hazardous Substances and New Organisms at the EPA.

“Making sure substances have the correct labels and packaging, and their safety data sheets have the correct information, will help keep everyone safer in the workplace. Managers and staff will be more aware of the risks of using the product and be better informed to improve workplace health and safety.” 

The EPA has developed a series of EPA Notices, most of which are now available for viewing on its website. These consolidate and simplify many of the rules for managing hazardous substances, including the labelling, packaging and safety data sheets for hazardous substances. The EPA Notices replace many of the regulations that were under the HSNO Act. However, people with existing approved substances will be given time to comply with the Labelling, Packaging and Safety Data Sheet Notices.

The EPA remains responsible for setting the rules to protect the environment, and people in non-workplaces from hazardous substances. It has a new enforcement responsibility to make sure importers and manufacturers of hazardous substances have HSNO approvals for their substances and the right label, packaging and safety data sheets.

WorkSafe’s role

WorkSafe continues to enforce the rules for the ‘downstream’ manufacture, use, handling and storage of hazardous substances in the workplace. However, it now does this under HSWA. WorkSafe also implements the rules by providing guidance, managing the compliance certification regime, and developing safe work instruments to set more detailed and technical rules for hazardous substances.

WorkSafe also continues to enforce the ecotoxic and disposal requirements in the workplace, which are still set under HSNO.

The Health and Safety at Work (Hazardous Substances) Regulations 2017 came into force on 1 December 2017.

“The Regulations bring an expectation on all those working with hazardous substances to know what those substances are, the risks they pose and how to manage those risks,” Mr Murray says.

“Now is a great time to review your hazardous substances management and make sure you are complying with your duty to protect people from harm in your workplace.”

WorkSafe has guidance, information and tools to help organisations understand their obligations on the WorkSafe website(external link) and Hazardous Substances Toolbox(external link).

The Regulations are available on the New Zealand Legislation(external link) website.

Dr Thomson-Carter and Mr Murray agree that to reduce harm from hazardous substances, everyone needs to do their bit.

“The new regime will only reduce harm from hazardous substances if everyone works together and people follow the rules. The rules are in place for a reason – to safeguard people and the environment.”

Our summary table gives an at-a-glance overview of these roles.