Warning: hazard!

Hazardous substances

Safety with hazardous substances is something I ask about on my visits, as you would probably expect. ‘Are you doing CoSHH assessments’? I ask. ‘Oh yes!’ comes the hasty reply. ‘Here you go’. Then I get given a heap of documents in an old folder which are usually out of date sheets that definitely aren’t CoSHH assessments.

CoSHH is the main set of regulations that deals with the safe use, storage and handling of hazardous substances and actually stands for the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health. It is the regulation that requires employers to control substances that are dangerous to health. You can prevent or reduce workers’ exposure to hazardous substances by:

  • Finding out what the health hazards are
  • Deciding how to prevent harm to health
  • Providing control measures to reduce harm to health
  • Making sure they are used
  • Keeping all control measures in good working order
  • Providing information, instruction and training for employees and others
  • Providing monitoring and health surveillance in appropriate cases

Most businesses use substances, or products that are mixtures of substances. Some processes create substances. These could cause harm to employees, contractors and others. Sometimes substances are easily recognised as harmful. Common substances such as paint, bleach or dust from natural materials may also be harmful though. There are also body fluids to think about as well.

What else do I need to do?

There are ways you can make things safer.

  • Can you avoid using a hazardous substance or use a safer process – preventing exposure, for example using water-based rather than solvent-based products, applying by brush rather than spraying?
  • Can you substitute it for a safer option– for example swap an irritant cleaning product for something milder, or use a vacuum cleaner rather than a brush?
  • Can you use a safer form – switching to using a solid rather than liquid to avoid splashes, or a waxy solid instead of a dry powder to avoid dust?

Employers are required to prevent or control exposure as far as possible and provide safe systems of work for all employees who work with hazardous substances. They should take the Safety Data Sheet (SDS or sometimes known as an MSDS) that comes with the hazardous substance and by looking at how they use it, create a risk assessment. If you haven’t got an SDS, try Googling it. This usually works and should give you the most up to date one.

You should carry out the risk assessment on all hazardous substances in order to identify:

  • All the risks associated with exposure to the substance
  • What control measures are required to prevent or reduce exposure
  • What, if any, alternative and less harmful substances could be used
  • All emergency procedures that should be adopted in the event of exposure and / or spillage

You will also need to

  • Provide information and train all employees who may use the substances, on the hazards and risks of hazardous substances and the control measures to be implemented
  • Review hazardous substances periodically. If possible, eliminate or substitute with a safer alternative where practicable
  • Monitor exposure and, where necessary, instigate health surveillance in order to catch any effects on health early

Employees have responsibilities too

Likewise your employees have responsibilities – they must:

  • Use, handle and store the substances in a prescribed manner as detailed in the CoSHH assessments
  • Take care when using any hazardous substance and read all labels and written advice on usage before using the substance
  • Co-operate fully with any monitoring of the workplace, any control measures and with the appropriate health surveillance programme as required
  • Always use any personal protective equipment provided and report any defects
  • Report immediately any suspicion they may have that either they or another employee is being affected by the use of any material at work
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