Workers in Many Sectors
Are You a Chemical Bystander?

Written by: Rob Hallsworth

Published on: 25 April 2018

The bystander effect is a well documented social phenomenon that explains why, when confronted with an emergency, people do not act. In simple terms it states that the more people there are in the area when an emergency occurs the less likely an individual is to help.

Two factors lead to this effect. The first is our assumption that others in the area are better equipped to handle the problem and so they will step in. The second is our tendency to act based on the consensus of a group – if the group does not act we won’t.

What is a Chemical Bystander?

When it comes to handling chemicals in the workplace most people are bystanders. We think that if a product was hazardous “someone” would let us know the hazards and how to protect ourselves. We also look at our peers in the workplace and if we see them using the product without taking precautions, we take that as confirmation that the product is safe to use.

In most organizations, management overlooks this chemical bystander effect. Keeping WHMIS safety data sheets (SDSs) up-to-date and providing employees with access to the SDSs as well as to online or in-person generic WHMIS education, is viewed as sufficient.  My experience helping companies responsibly manage chemicals, says that it is not.

Do You Pass the Buck?

Most managers look to one (or all) of the following groups as the “someone” who is better positioned to identify the chemical hazards and protective measures:

Employees – who read the SDS. We recently worked with highly educated professionals who were frequently exposed to a product that “May Cause Cancer”.  They assumed that since the product was readily available, it was safe and did not think to read the SDS. This is what really happens – employees think someone else has read the SDS.

Suppliers – who provide all the required information. We recently showed an SDS to a manager which stated that users should wear “appropriate gloves”.  The manager was outraged that the supplier did not provide a specific glove type. In their view the supplier was more qualified to answer the question on what gloves to wear despite not knowing the particular circumstances of how the organization used the product.

Governments – who set chemical safety standards in WHMIS. WHMIS was developed to help people work safely with chemicals by collecting critical information in one document and requiring companies to maintain these documents for the chemicals they manage.  But this information must be further customized for each organization and should alert managers about their need to follow other regulations – regulations most managers overlook when considering how to safely handle chemicals.

Good managers know that they are not just another face in the crowd looking for someone to lead the way. They are the leader, looking to engage their people, suppliers and industry experts in addressing chemical handling in a safe and responsible way.

If you are looking for more efficient ways to responsibly manage your chemicals, contact us at We can help!

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