Towards a future of zero harm

Nathan Cartwright* uncovers the complex relationship between safety and environmental responsibility.

Nathan Cartwright* uncovers the complex relationship between safety and environmental responsibility.

THE 80’s and 90’s saw introduction and refining of environment protection legislation in the various state and territory jurisdictions.

To complement the introduction of these acts there was an increase in the resources allocated to environment protection agencies to police the new legislation.

The combination of these two factors heralded the new role of environment co-ordinator in many organisations charged with fulfilling a ‘zero harm’ aspiration.

Because of the considerable existing regulation of workplace health and safety, many organisations were adding the role of Environment Coordinator to a team that already included an OH&S Coordinator.

For much of the position requirements, environment and safety are able to operate independently of each other.

There is however a crossover of responsibilities that does occur. The identification of these two roles poses the question of where health and safety ends and environment begins.

The easiest place to see this crossover of roles manifesting itself in the workplace is in the event of a diesel fuel spill. If the spill threatens to contaminate land or water then it is an environmental issue.

That same diesel spill is a serious fire and slip hazard and as such falls under the responsibility if the OH&S manager. Either way the issue must be addressed to prevent damage to the environment, personnel and premises.

The manner in which the issue of workplace spills are addressed also raises issues for both the Environment and OH&S Coordinators.

A well-known way of cleaning up such spills is with granular absorbents commonly known as “kitty litter”. One OH&S issue involved with using “kitty litter” to clean up spills is the weight of the bags. As a general rule, Workcover organizations and responsible companies set a single person safe lifting limit of 16kg in order to avoid back injuries.

Standard bags of granular absorbents weight 20kg (30L). The most obvious way to avoid the risk of back injury when lifting bags of absorbent and carrying them to the site of the spill is to only use the 10kg size bags. Another option is to explore the other absorbents available on the market that are lightweight and often many times more absorbent.

To avoid OH&S risks, absorbent materials should only be used once. If a diesel spill is cleaned up and the contaminated absorbent material is not disposed of in the correct manner it poses a serious fire hazard.

If that same diesel soaked absorbent is used to clean up a spill of cleaning chemicals that may contain bleach, hazardous chemical reactions that threaten both the staff and the premises can easily occur.

To avoid this scenario, contaminated absorbent material must immediately be disposed as required by relevant regulation.

The Environment Coordinator also faces the challenge of identifying the best spill response products to provide the most cost effective result and the best environmental outcome. Due to the aim of many companies to work towards achieving ‘zero harm’ there is one critical question that must be answered when deciding on the most appropriate absorbent to use onsite.

What damage has been done to the environment to produce the absorbent material?’

There are several types of kitty litter style absorbent but the most common is Diatomaceous earth or DE. DE is the fossil remains of diatom skeletons up to 20 million years old.

This substance is mined and is a non-renewable.

Peat moss, an organic material that is harvested from wetlands, is another substance used to clean up spills.

While it is an effective absorbent we are only now truly understanding the critical role that delicate wetlands play in our ecosystem and the need to protect and conserve them.

Cotton waste is an effective absorbent that comes from a renewable source. This crop uses large amounts of water to cultivate it and in most cases requires regular application of agricultural chemicals to ensure a good harvest.

Alternatively, ground coconut husk is 100% organic and highly absorbent.

This readily renewable resource has no chemicals added during growing, harvesting or processing and is an excellent alternative to non-renewable, resource hungry absorbents.

It is only by considering these issues and understanding the overlapping roles of both the Environment Coordinator and the OH&S Coordinator that we can realise our best environmental and workplace health & safety outcomes and endeavour towards achieving zero harm.

*Nathan Cartwright is Managing Director of Spill Station Australia. For more information phone 02 9725 5640 or visit the website at