Every year exposure to hazardous substances at work effects the health of many thousands of people.
Common examples include lung disease (like dusty conditions), skin irritation, dermatitis or skin cancer (like frequent contact with oils, contact with corrosive liquids), occupational asthma (like sensitisation to isocyanates in paints or adhesives), toxic fumes and occupational cancer.
The high costs of ill-health arise from loss of earnings, loss of productivity, prosecution and civil action amongst others.
The Control of Substances Hazardous to Health (COSHH) Regulations 1999, as amended by COSHH Regulations 2002.
These provide a framework to help protect people in the workplace against health risks from hazardous substances. The substances may be used directly in the work (for example, cleaning chemicals, chemical reagents) or may arise from the work (for example, dusts, fumes and waste products).
COSHH lays down a sensible step-by-step approach to the necessary precautions and is therefore a useful tool of good management. The potential for identifiable cost benefits (for example, tighter control over the use and storage of materials), improved morale and industrial relations have been widely realised.
COSHH applies to virtually all substances hazardous to health. Exceptions include asbestos and lead (which have their own regulations) and substances which are hazardous only because they are radioactive, asphyxiants, at high pressure/temperature or have explosive/flammable properties.
- Hazard - is the potential to cause harm
- Risk - is the likelihood that it will harm you in the actual circumstances of use
The risk will depend on a number of factors, such as the hazard presented by the substance, how it is used, how exposure is controlled, the degree and extent of exposure.
COSHH requires the following:
- Assessment of the risks
- Deciding what precautions are needed
- Prevention or control of the risks
- Ensuring that control measures are used and maintained
- Monitoring exposure and health surveillance, where necessary
- Informing, instructing and training employees about the risks and precautions needed
Assessment is a step-by-step approach:
- Identify what hazards there are
- Evaluate the risks to people
- For significant risks, decide on the action needed to remove or reduce them to insignificant levels
Assessment is the responsibility of the employer. People preparing the assessment will need to:
- Have access to, and understand, COSHH, related legislation, codes of practice and published guidance
- Be competent to carry through the work of assessment
- Consult widely within the workforce and inform them of results accordingly
- Consider peripatetic workers (who work for you on other premises)
Hazards - Substances hazardous to health include:
- Substances classified as dangerous to health under the Chemicals Hazard Information and Packing for Supply) (CHIP3) Regulations 2002. Many are listed in 'The Approved Supply List' which is part of the 'CHIP 3' regulations
- Substances with occupational exposure limits (these are specified in Guidance Note EH40 which is revised annually)
- Biological agents
- Dusts of any kind in substantial concentrations
Identification of hazardous substances can be sought from:
- Hazard data sheets and labels from suppliers (required by law) from which you must draw conclusions relevant to the way the substance is used in the workplace
- Knowledge from within your business or industry
- Trade literature
- Published guidance/documents
- Part V of the Approved Supply List (Health and Safety Executive)
Risks - Risk assessment involves looking at:
- Use, handling, generation and release of hazardous substances
- Who might be affected and likely exposure level/extent
- Nature of exposure (breathing in, swallowing, skin absorption)
- Current measures to prevent or control exposure - effectiveness and use?
- Accidental leakage, spillage or release
- Cleaning and maintenance operations
- No likelihood or insignificant risk - no further action until review of assessment
- Risks identified - ensure appropriate control measures, in the following order of priority:
- Change process/activity so that the hazardous substance is not required or generated
- Replace with safer alternative (see HS(G)110 in Ref/Further Details section) substitution
- Use it in safer form
- Control may include any of the following:
- Total enclosure of the process
- Partial enclosure and extraction equipment
- General ventilation
- Using systems of work and handling procedures which minimise chances of spills and leaks or exposure to the substance(s)
- Personal protective equipment (for example respirators, protective clothing) only as a last resort when you cannot adequately control exposure by any combination of the measures above.
- Employees are required to make proper use of control measures and to report defects
- Employers are required to keep controls in efficient working order and good repair. Engineering controls and respiratory protective equipment have to be examined and, where appropriate, tested at suitable intervals. Suitable records of all such actions taken must be kept
- Monitoring exposure is required in certain circumstances, for example where there could be serious risks to health if control measures were to fail or deteriorate or where you cannot be sure that exposure limits are not being exceeded. Records of monitoring should be kept
- Health surveillance is required
- Where an employee is engaged in one of the processes listed in Schedule 5 of COSHH and is likely to receive significant exposure to the substance involved
- Where employees are exposed to a substance linked to a particular disease or adverse health effect and there is reasonable likelihood under the conditions of the work of that disease or adverse health effect occurring and it is possible to detect the disease or adverse health effect. Suitable records must be kept for 40 years
Recording and reviewing the assessment
Unless the assessment is so simple that it can be easily recalled and its conclusions explained, it should be put in writing. Reviews should take place regularly, at not less than 5 yearly intervals, and in any case where it is no longer valid or there have been significant changes in the work.
Informing, instructing and training employees
Must be carried out by employers about the substances and their associated risks and precautions. Sufficient information and instruction should be given on control measures, personal protective equipment, results of any exposure monitoring or health surveillance and emergency procedures.
The steps in making an assessment
Checklist - Control of Substances Hazardous to Health (COSHH)
Have you a complete inventory of substances used/generated in the workplace?
Have you identified any substances hazardous to health?
Have you gathered information about the substances, the work and working processes?
- For instance what hazards are involved?
Have you evaluated the risks to health (either on an individual or group basis)?
- For instance the chance of exposure occurring?
- What level of exposure could happen?
- The duration of the exposure
- The frequency of the exposure?
Have you decided what needs to be done in terms of:
- Preventing or controlling exposure?
- Maintaining control measures?
- Using control measures?
- Any monitoring/surveillance?
- Information, instruction and training?
Have you decided to record the assessment?
If 'yes' to (6), have you decided on the extent, presentation and format of record?
Have you decided when each assessment should be reviewed?
Have you established a system or procedure to manage and record the above elements?
Useful web links
Health and Safety Executive
Easy steps to control health risks from chemicals