One of the most common hazards found in the workplace is the use, handling and storage of hazardous substances. The Control of Substances Hazardous to Health (COSHH) Regulations have been introduced to guide employers on how to safely control the use of hazardous substances and reduce the risks that may potentially cause harm.
Hazardous substances can enter the body via inhalation, ingestion, injection or absorption. Types of substances hazardous to health include:
- Fumes and Smoke
- Biological Agents
Even though the workplace is safer now than it has been for the past 50 years, poisoning and other injuries due to hazardous substances still occur. Levels of exposure provide an important indicator to the hazards in the workplace environment. Lead poisoning for example, is associated with the inhalation of lead fumes, while dust from operations such as grinding, milling, sanding and demolition can cause serious illness. The same goes for liquids, including cleaning materials and carcinogens, which can cause cancer.
In addition to this there are both gases, such as chlorine, and biological agents like bacteria, viruses, fungi and mould in ordinary workplace environments today. Chlorine, for example, is frequently used in water treatment, even though it is an extremely aggressive gas that can cause serious lung damage. Bacteria and viruses are often found in clinical waste and can cause a variety of serious illnesses.
Controlling Hazardous Substances
Exposure to hazardous substances should be prevented if it is reasonably practicable to do so. Employers should consider eliminating the process, so the hazardous substance is not needed or generated. If this is not possible the employer should make sure the hazardous substance is substituted by a safer alternative. If this is not possible an assessment should be carried out and methods of control established using one or more of these measures:
- Enclosing the process
- Providing good ventilation
- Using systems of work and handling procedures that minimise the chances of materials spilling, leaking or otherwise escaping
- Reducing the number of employees exposed, or the duration of their exposure.
- Providing suitable training
- Using PPE (last resort)
It is the responsibility of the employer to ensure that a suitable assessment of risk to the health of employees is carried out.
Employees also have a responsibility to report any problems caused by hazardous substances used in the workplace, to their employer.
Manufacturers and suppliers must label hazardous substances and mixtures in accordance with the Classification, Labelling and Packaging (CLP) Regulations.
The hazardous properties from these substances can be identified from their warning label and the employer must provide a data sheet and assessment for each of them.
Training and Authorisation
Employers must ensure that staff understand the risks from hazardous substances to which they could be exposed. Control methods will not be fully effective if staff do not know how to use them properly, e.g. deal with spillages, or understand the importance of reporting faults. Staff should be made fully aware of how to use equipment and of the emergency procedures for the workplace. Authorisation for the use of hazardous substances must be kept to a minimum and records should be kept, listing authorised usage personnel and the training they have received.
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