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December 2023-February 2024

Safety and science: Partners in innovation

Chemical safety at work has its frustrations – for workers and regulators alike – but neglecting it in the name of innovation can cost lives.

In a 2018 email exchange between the late entrepreneur and engineer Stockton Rush and divemaster/explorer Rob McCallum, as reported by the BBC (, Rush stated:

I have grown tired of industry players who try to use a safety argument to stop innovation and new entrants from entering their small existing market.

McCallum’s response was illuminating:

… having stood in a Coroners Court as a technical expert, it would be remiss of me not to bring this [danger] to your attention.

In a CBS news interview (, Rush also stated that:

… there’s a limit. You know, at some point, safety just is a pure waste. I mean, if you just want to be safe, don’t get out of bed … At some point, you’re going to take some risk, and it really is a risk/reward question. I think I can do this [innovation] just as safely by breaking the rules.

We will never know whether this was just rhetoric or a more ingrained way of thinking. Stockton Rush and four others perished during the Titan submersible dive to view the RMS Titanic.

The conversation between Rush and McCallum highlights many issues. One is the shocking disregard for safety and the role of safety in innovation. Despite McCallum putting forward several arguments as to why breaking the rules was not an option, Rush was steadfast in his determination in ‘breaking the rules’ and disregarding the basic principles of physics and safety. There is a difference between being innovative by thinking outside the square and deciding which rules you will break in the name of innovation and recognition. Five people, including Rush, paid the price for his attitude. Sadly, these kinds of conversations are not unique – they play out daily in many workplaces.

Rush was right and wrong. Everything we do, from getting out of bed, working with hazardous chemicals, and even crossing the road, is not without risk. Life has risks. Every day we make hundreds of decisions based on the associated risk of activities. Yet, when it comes to managing workplace risks, workers and employers are often brought kicking and screaming to the health, safety and environment (HSE) table. Like Rush, many see safety as a barrier to innovation or that breaking the safety rules in the name of science and progress is okay.

Why negative attitudes to HSE?

Why and when do people decide to disregard safety advice and regulations? Where is the ‘point’ that Rush described? After all, we know that when some rules are broken, the results can be catastrophic. There always seems to be someone who considers themselves competent enough to not comply with the laboratory safety standards or health and safety regulations.

Safety professionals are often labelled ‘bureaucratic’, ‘safety cops’ and ‘petty’. In 2013, the UK’s Health and Safety Executive took an unusual approach by implementing a campaign to counter the increasing misinformation and incorrect application of health and safety requirements.

Is the problem that health and safety professionals focus so much on the requirements to meet strict workplace health and safety (WHS) regulatory requirements, key performance indicators and other prescriptive measures that we have lost sight of the impact of this on workplaces? Or is it that the body of knowledge that defines the health and safety profession has taken us away from understanding and managing specific hazards to operating in a mode of critical thinking, regulatory compliance and legal ramifications, rather than acting as the enablers we should be?

HSE consultants frustrated too

Health and safety consultants also get frustrated with the often-overwhelming bureaucratic red tape. In early 2023, the safety landscape changed when a health and safety manager was charged with breaching Queensland’s Workplace Health and Safety Act 2011 after two workers contracted Q fever. The prosecution was based on the health and safety manager’s failure ‘so far as reasonably practicable’ to develop and implement relevant policies and procedures to control the hazard and the failure to complete a risk assessment and implement the relevant controls. The ramification of this prosecution is a point of continuing discussion for the occupational health and safety profession. However, it is a reminder that as workers we have a responsibility to take reasonable care of our own health and safety while also ensuring that our acts and omissions do not adversely affect the health and safety of others.

The bottom line is that the health and safety consultant has a role in protecting employees from workplace hazards, and in assisting organisations to comply with regulations. There is no getting around the fact that the regulator expects to see completed risk assessments, standard operating procedures and worksite inspections. From a health and safety consultant’s perspective, if that is what the regulator wants, that is what the regulator gets. Health and safety consultants are the messengers. We are the ones who have to implement the regulations; we do not make the rules.

Reflecting on the ‘E’ in HSE

The point of safety is not the mandated WHS worksite inspections, risk assessments and hazardous chemicals registers. In 2011, the International Year of Chemistry, the OECD published a retrospective review, 40 years of chemical safety, covering roughly the same 40 years since the publication of Bretherick’s handbook. It was not about chemical innovations but was a reflection of toxic chemicals’ impact on the environment, humans and other animal species. Incidents such as the release of methyl isocyanate in Bhopal, India (1984), and the Sandoz chemical spill and fire in Schweizerhalle, Switzerland (1986), led to the publication of OECD’s Guiding principles for chemical accident prevention, preparedness and response in 1992, with the third edition published earlier this year.

The OECD’s book focuses on chemists such as Rachel Carson (1960s) and Rowland and Molina (1995 Nobel Laureates) for their work on DDT and on the health and environmental impact of CFCs, respectively. The OECD acknowledged their Environment, Health and Safety Division for its work with independent experts, government and policymakers regarding existing and emerging issues in the chemical safety arena and reflected upon the development of good laboratory practices, animal welfare process safety and risk assessments.

Despite the focus on chemical safety in recent decades, the world continues to see many incidents that could have been avoided.

In 2019, John B. Goodenough, M. Stanley Whittingham and A. Yoshino were awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry for developing a lithium-ion battery. Yet, in the past 18 months, Australia has seen more than 450 fires linked to lithium-ion fires. In New York City alone, more than 250 people have been injured as a result of lithium-ion battery fires. Government agencies worldwide are now tasked with assessing the risks and reviewing regulations associated with lithium-ion batteries. Australasian Fire and Emergency Service Authorities Council have acknowledged that lithium-ion battery fires are incredibly challenging.

Leighton and Rush represent a dichotomy in health and safety. Leighton was an innovator and a safety leader concerned about worker and public safety. Not only did he consider the hazards, he respected them at a time when health and safety was in its infancy. Rush considered safety an obstruction to innovation. He disrespected the hazards and broke the rules. In doing so, he paid the ultimate price. Had Titan been rescued, would Rush have rethought his perspective on safety?

Every worker has the right to go home from work in the same condition in which they started the day. Every consumer has the right to a product that will be safe. Despite this and the abundant and sometimes frustrating regulatory framework, people still die at work or from diseases caused by exposure to hazardous chemicals. Hazardous chemicals involve some of the most complex safety hazards that workplaces have to manage, and the chemicals and their hazards need to be respected and understood. Chemistry and safety should fit hand in glove, and innovation and safety should work hand in hand. None of us is invincible.

Lisa J. Stevens FAIHS ChOHSP, FRACI CChem is an OHS consultant specialising in laboratory safety and chemical management. She is a past chair of the Health, Safety and Environmental Division, Winner of the 2020 HSE Division Medal and PhD candidate at Edith Cowan University.

Still too many work-related fatalities and injuries, says Safe Work Australia

Safe Work Australia has released the Key work health and safety statistics Australia 2023 report, which reveals a national snapshot of work health and safety in Australia.

In 2022, 195 people were fatally injured at work in Australia, compared with 172 in 2021. Overall, the number and rate of fatalities has been trending downwards since 2007. The rate of serious workers’ compensation claims was 6.5 serious claims per million hours worked in 2021–22.

‘While the trends are encouraging, the statistics are still too high. Every work-related fatality is a tragedy, and there’s a lot more work to be done to ensure that everyone gets home safely,’ Safe Work Australia CEO, Michelle Baxter said.

‘We know that work-related fatalities, injuries and disease have a devastating impact on workers and their families.

‘This report brings together key data that will help inform improved WHS policy and practice to make Australian workplaces safer and healthier,’ Baxter said.

The Key work health and safety statistics Australia 2023 report is a high-level overview of national statistics on work-related fatalities, injuries and disease.

Download the full report and explore more data at

Work-related fatalities 2022

Tragically, in 2022, a total of 195 people were fatally injured at work in Australia.

  • • The traumatic injury fatality rate for workers in Australia has decreased by 30% since 2012.
  • • 93% of worker fatalities were male.
  • • 42% of all worker fatalities involved a vehicle.
  • • Machinery operators and drivers had the highest number of fatalities by occupation (74 fatalities).
  • • The agriculture, forestry and fishing industry had the highest worker fatality rate (14.7 per 100 000).

Workers’ compensation claims 2021–22

  • • There were 127 800 serious workers’ compensation claims in Australia.
  • • Body stressing (health problems associated with repetitive and strenuous work) was the leading cause of serious workers’ compensation claims (32.6%).
  • • Mental health conditions accounted for 9.2% or 11 700 claims in 2021–22. This figure is substantially higher than 10 years ago, rising from 6.5% of all serious claims in 2011–12 to 9.2% in 2021–22.
  • • Accepted serious workers’ compensation claims for COVID-19 increased substantially from the previous year, from 400 in 2020–21 to 9500 in 2021–22.
  • • The age group with the lowest frequency rate continued to be workers aged 35–44 years, at 5.4 serious claims per million hours worked.

Safe Work Australia


Two pioneers in chemistry health, safety and environment

A.E. Leighton, after whom RACI’s premier medal is named, was a paradigm of safety at a time when Australia’s health and safety framework was just being developed. With a background in explosives research and production in England and India, Leighton was appointed designer and manager of the Maribyrnong (Victoria) cordite factory in 1909. Leighton was more than just a chemist; he was an innovator developing safer alternatives to cotton cordite and glycerine. In a time before Australian Standards and WHS regulations, he pushed for absolute standards of measurement. Leighton saw the need for and benefits of implementing safety measures within the munitions factories. He saw the human impact of exposure to chemicals and the effect on productivity. Leighton knew that just because the Maribyrnong factory had not suffered an accident, precautions still needed to be taken to avoid one. For Leighton, safety was about paying attention and reminding others of the importance of those irksome and seemingly trifling requirements.

Two near misses, including one that ‘almost involved [his] personal oxidation’,* started British chemist Leslie Bretherick on a quest to improve chemists’ knowledge of adverse reactions. He devoted a significant part of his career to writing his 1000-page Bretherick’s handbook of reactive chemical hazards, published in 1975. Today, RACI recognises Bretherick’s contribution to laboratory safety and chemical management through the Health, Safety and Environmental Division’s Leslie Bretherick Memorial Lecture.

*According to an opinion piece in Chemistry World (, Leslie Bretherick described the incident, involving chromium trioxide and acetic anhydride, in a letter to Chemistry & Industry in 1964.

Every day we make hundreds of decisions based on the associated risk of activities. Yet, when it comes to managing workplace risks, workers and employers are often brought kicking and screaming to the health, safety and environment (HSE) table.
Despite the focus on chemical safety in recent decades, the world continues to see many incidents that could have been avoided.

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