Three quarters of businesses dealing with hazardous substances are not meeting legal safety requirements, a study has found.
A survey of 400 businesses, conducted this year by Research New Zealand for the Environmental Protection Authority, found just 25 per cent met the requirements set out under the Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act.
Eight key safety requirements were considered across a broad range of industries, from farming to adventure tourism.
The most common compliance issue was around safety gear.
Although almost all businesses said they provided protective equipment such as gloves and goggles and trained staff to use it, the survey found only two out of three employees always used it when handling hazardous substances.
Managing hazardous substances in an emergency was also a frequent regulatory lapse.
Though four out of five businesses had an emergency plan in place and most had run evacuation drills within the past year as required by law, a third of businesses had no system in place in case they had to deal with their hazardous substances in such an emergency.
The survey also looked at legal requirements around employee certification, substance documentation and handling tanks.
It was the first conducted looking at compliance with the act, EPA general manager of compliance Andrea Eng said.
"We are concerned about the low levels of overall compliance as it indicates unacceptable risks to health and safety in the workplace."
She said that although organisations were actively trying to comply, the legal requirements were often complex and not well understood.
"Reducing the legislative complexity of the regime is critical to better compliance."
The EPA was also planning an educational programme on companies' legal obligations to address the issue.
Quality Environmental Consulting managing director Leigh-Anne Peake said her organisation saw a low level of understanding of what the law required through its hazardous substance consulting work.
She said improving compliance would require better guidance from government on how to interpret the regulations.
The number of work-related deaths caused by hazardous substances is estimated at between 440 and 675 a year.
A hazardous substance is defined as a substance that is flammable, explosive, corrosive, toxic, a fire accelerant or can turn into a hazardous substance when exposed to water or air.
In Wellington and the central North Island, fewer than 20 per cent of companies were fully compliant. About 30 per cent of organisations tested in Auckland, Canterbury and Otago met all requirements looked at.
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