In the UK 2012-13, there were around 13,000 deaths from occupational lung disease and cancer believed to be caused by exposure to chemicals and dust at work. At the same time, 2 million people were suffering from an illness they believed had been caused or made worse by their working environments.

Shocking though these statistics are, they are only the tip of the iceberg when considering the numbers of people exposed to hazardous substances in their working lives. With a growing awareness of health and safety and adherence to the laws on hazardous substances, the number of workplace illnesses and deaths can be lowered.

Effects on People

A hazardous substance is any chemical or biological material that can cause harm to people or the environment.

This includes substances that can cause immediate damage (e.g. corrosive acids) and substances that cause a long-term effect, often made worse with prolonged exposure (e.g. asbestos). Common types of illnesses caused by exposure to hazardous substances include:

– Cancer

– Lung diseases such as asthma

– Skin complaints

– Eye damage

Many of these illnesses are easily avoidable. The Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations 2002 (COSHH) set out clear instructions for employers to follow to ensure their workers are protected from the harmful effects of hazardous substances in the workplace. Two of the steps are elimination (does the process requiring or producing the hazardous substance need to take place at all?) and substitution (can the hazardous substance be replaced by something less harmful?). In many cases, there was no real need for the worker to be exposed to the materials that made them ill at all.

Among many health complications, asbestos exposure can cause mesothelioma, a fatal lung disease. 2595 people died from it in the UK in 2016 and thousands of deaths are reported every year. The majority of these cases were for people who had come into contact with asbestos as part of their work. In one sad case, a lady died from mesothelioma due to the effects of washing her husband’s work overalls decades before, as he had been working with asbestos.

Since asbestos is widely present in buildings constructed before it was banned in 2000, it’s important that staff are well aware of the dangers of this hazardous substance.

For hazardous substances that can cause immediate harm such as fumes or acids, the ways to protect workers from harm are often very straightforward. Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) is usually the most visible but this is actually the last line of defence against exposure. Ideally it should be used in conjunction with other, more effective control measures that limit the exposure, such as physical barriers or automation for dangerous tasks. It is also important to make sure that all staff are trained in the handling of the hazardous materials so that they can follow all safety guidelines accurately.

There can be no denying the importance of controlling hazardous substances appropriately and protecting workers, their families and the general public from their harmful effects.

Effects on the Environment

All businesses produce hazardous waste. Batteries, cleaning products and used mobile phones can all fall under this classification. When this is disposed of incorrectly, it can have a terrible effect on the environment, polluting waters and killing wildlife. Businesses that are reviewing their approach to hazardous materials should take potential environmental hazards into account as well as the potential harm to humans.

A Middlesex company, Regal Rank Ltd, was fined over £2500 for sending hazardous waste to a site that didn’t have the right qualifications to accept it. As it was the company’s responsibility to ensure their hazardous waste was disposed of properly, they were the ones prosecuted for the incident.

Complying with Hazardous Substances Legislation

Making sure your business meets all of its responsibilities under COSHH and other hazardous substances legislation doesn’t need to be difficult or complicated. Many of the requirements, such as assessing the risk of the substances and who might need control measures to protect them, are largely common sense.

However, by following them and keeping their staff safe, organisations can reap the benefits. They are protected from the financial loss that comes from prosecution or bad publicity and, most importantly, their workers are safe from harm – either immediately, through avoiding accidents involving hazardous substances, or years and decades down the line. Environmental concerns are also increasingly important to consumers, with more and more customers looking at a company’s environmental credentials when deciding where to buy their products and services.

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Hazardous substances are one of the key concerns regarding health and safety in the workplace. As the potential damage for any accidents or mishandling of these substances can be so severe, they are governed by many different pieces of legislation from both the UK Parliament and the EU. Many of these relate to particular industries, often those using specialist products and equipment.
Three of the most significant pieces of legislation relating to hazardous substances are Control of Substances Hazardous to Health (COSHH), Dangerous Substances and Explosive Atmospheres Regulations 2002 (DSEAR) and the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012. These were introduced to simplify earlier legislation on the matter and to bring the UK into full compliance with EU law.
COSHH – Control of Substances Hazardous to Health, 2002
This is the most significant piece of legislation governing hazardous substances in the UK. Most chemical or biological materials likely to be in the workplace come under COSHH.
In 2011, LED sign manufacturer Variable Message Signs Ltd was fined £5500 (plus £4200 costs) for violating COSHH regulations. The investigation found they had exposed their employees to hazardous fumes, increasing their risks of developing occupational asthma. They had failed to install a suitable extraction system and hadn’t considered replacing the solder used with a less hazardous alternative – both control systems that might have been applied had they considered their responsibilities under COSHH.
COSHH sets out the steps employers must take to prevent, reduce or control their workers’ exposure to any materials that may be hazardous to their health. All companies must complete a COSHH risk assessment, and it must be written down if the company has more than five employees (smaller companies may find it useful to do so anyway). Even workplaces that do not handle hazardous substances as part of their work are still exposed to them, as the legislation covers everyday cleaning products as well.
It is very important that all staff are told about hazardous substances they will come into contact with and the associated risks, and trained in their handling.

DSEAR – Dangerous Substances and Explosive Atmospheres Regulations, 2002
DSEAR classifies explosive, oxidising and flammable materials as “dangerous”, as they can create or contribute to an explosive atmosphere. Any materials that can put people at risk due to explosions, fires or corrosion of metal if not properly handled are covered under DSEAR.
Obvious examples such as fireworks factories and laboratories handling explosive materials fall under the legislation, but DSEAR is relevant for almost all employers; items such as solvents, paints and flammable gases would all be considered an explosion risk.
After a 2012 explosion at Borders Fine Arts in Langholm, parent company Enesco Limited of Carlisle was fined £10,500 after an investigation by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) found they had contravened DSEAR. They had previously carried out a DSEAR risk assessment that raised issues with certain machinery but had re-installed the machinery years later to increase productivity. Though nobody was injured in the explosion, if it had taken place during a busier time or closer to employees, the consequences could have been devastating.
Under DSEAR, employers must identify all potential hazards from explosive materials and put a plan in place for handling them. They must also devise procedures for dealing with emergencies. Any areas of the workplace at risk of creating explosive atmospheres must be identified and kept as far away as possible from any ignition sources.
Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012
More than 4000 people die in the UK each year because of asbestos exposure. Asbestos was used in a range of building materials and is widely present in many commercial buildings built before the year 2000.
The legislation regulating asbestos requires the “duty holder” (who is responsible for the building, so may be the owner or the person in charge of maintenance) to conduct an assessment to determine if there is any asbestos present. If it is present but in good condition and undisturbed, it needs to be closely monitored to make sure it doesn’t become damaged – asbestos becomes dangerous when it’s disturbed, as this is when the fibres are breathed in. If asbestos does need to be removed, it should be done by appropriately trained specialists. All staff should be trained so they are aware of the dangers.
Buildings constructed after the year 2000 do not usually contain asbestos but if there is any doubt, it’s worth consulting with a professional to make sure.
COSHH, DSEAR and the asbestos legislation are all important regulations relating to hazardous substances in the workplace. Along with other laws such as the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 and the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999, they set out an employer’s duty to protect their workers and the public from the effects of exposure to hazardous substances.

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Most workplaces contain hazardous substances. These range from everyday cleaning products through to chemicals that require specialist handling and fumes produced by industrial activities. Every year, thousands of workers in the UK become ill because of contact with hazardous substances at their workplace, with lung diseases, cancer and skin complaints among the most common issues. Handling these materials safely is one of the key responsibilities companies have towards their own staff and any visitors or members of the public that could be affected by the use of hazardous substances.

The Control of Substances Hazardous to Health (COSHH) regulations lay out the responsibilities employers have to prevent, reduce or control their workers’ exposure to substances that could harm their health.

Similar legislation has existed for over two decades, but it was introduced in its current form in 2002.

Which Substances are Covered by COSHH?

COSHH covers most chemical or biological substances deemed to be “hazardous to health”. When deciding if a substance is potentially hazardous, it helps to look at the label for any warning signs. For more detailed information, an MSDS (material safety data sheet) might be available from the manufacturer and can provide more detail about a particular substance’s properties and ingredients.

Asbestos, lead, radioactive material and certain types of industrial fumes are covered under their own specialist legislation but aside from these, the majority of hazardous materials are regulated by COSHH.

These include:

– All forms of chemicals and chemical mixtures

– Dusts and fumes created by certain workplace processes

– Gases and vapours

– Germs

– Nanotechnology

What Do Employers Need to Do to Comply with COSHH?

Employers need to know which hazardous substances are in use and what hazards they pose to their workers. They’re required to complete a risk assessment, taking into account all hazards and what could be done to minimise any issues that might arise. They must then ensure this is carried out and all control measures are adequate and in good working order. COSHH risk assessments should be reviewed on a regular basis and again when any new hazardous substances are introduced.

Once the risks have been identified, employers must consider:

– Does the hazardous substance need to be used? Can the process requiring the substance be eliminated or could a safer substance be used instead?

– Which controls do we need to implement? If the hazardous substance in question can’t be eliminated or replaced, the company needs to find other ways to limit exposure and keep their employees safe.

It’s vital that all hazardous substances are stored correctly, preferably in the smallest quantities necessary (larger quantities can be stored off-site). All staff need to be appropriately trained in recognising and handling hazardous materials. It is also the responsibility of the employer to make sure all staff are aware of the risks posed by each hazardous substance.

It might be necessary to make modifications to the working environment where the substances are used. For example, ventilation could be improved or a physical barrier such as a wall could be built to remove the worker from the immediate vicinity of the substance.

– Do we need Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)? PPE is the last line of defence between the hazardous substance and the employees, so it’s a last resort when considering safety measures.

PPE must be of the correct type, well-maintained and readily available for all staff that require it. The company must provide the PPE free of charge.

Why is COSHH important?

In 2018, Tesco were fined £125,000 after a 2016 breach of COSHH and other health and safety legislation at their Highwoods store in Colchester. An employee suffered chemical burns after coming into contact with a corrosive cleaning product. This incident illustrates that all employers need to take COSHH extremely seriously, regardless of their size. The financial penalties for refusing to do so can be severe and, most importantly, the consequences for the health of the employees involved can suffer.

The health issues that can arise from exposure to hazardous substances are varied and can either be immediate or long-term, with some symptoms only surfacing decades after exposure has taken place. Knowledge of COSHH and proper compliance with it is one of the most important duties an employer has towards its workers.

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Exposure to hazardous substances remains one of the most serious threats to workplace health and safety. Around 5000 people die from the effects of asbestos exposure in the UK every year – more than the number killed in road accidents.
Hazardous substances – defined as any material with the potential to cause harm to people or the environment – are responsible for many immediate and long-term health conditions but with the right control measures in place, workers can be protected from these.
Immediate Health Effects
Some hazardous substances produce immediate effects upon exposure such as irritated eyes or skin rashes. Depending on the hazardous substance, the effects can be short-term and treatable with the right medical care, or they can be serious or even fatal.
Fibreglass dust can cause immediate or “acute” health issues. Most commonly, it can irritate the eyes. It can cause breathing problems when inhaled and skin rashes on contact. Appropriate control measures should be put in place and effective PPE should be worn, including eye, mouth, nose and skin protection.
Corrosive substances can cause extensive damage immediately upon contact with the skin or eyes. With most acids injuries, the area should be washed extensively with water and any contaminated clothing removed; this can help to minimise the permanent effects on the victim’s health.

Long Term Health Effects
Asbestos is one of the strongest examples of a substance that doesn’t always cause immediate physical harm to a person but can wreak havoc on them many years after exposure. Mesothelioma, asbestos-related lung cancer, asbestosis and pleural thickening are all caused by inhaling asbestos fibres.
Although asbestos was banned in 2000, it’s widely present in buildings constructed before that year and the annual death rate is still high. Some experts have argued that the DIY boom of the 1990s could have led to a spike in exposure that may not become fully apparent until the health effects are evident in years to come. Asbestos is still very much a current issue and awareness is as important as ever.
The primary piece of UK asbestos management legislation is the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012. Due to the grave consequences that follow exposure, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) takes this extremely seriously and will prosecute where necessary. In August 2018, Macclesfield company Wood Treatment Ltd were fined £2000 and costs of £3170 after contravening asbestos regulations. The company had an Asbestos Survey and Action Plan but these were not communicated to all employees and some panels protecting workers from asbestos had been cut away, changed and replaced, heightening the risk of disturbed asbestos making contact with people. The HSE claimed their actions had put people at serious risk.
Exposure to lead can cause both long-term and immediate effects. Even a one-off exposure to a large quantity of lead can cause symptoms such as tremors, anxiety, headaches and dizziness, and even cause fatal complications. Long-term exposure can cause damage to organs because it is absorbed into the bloodstream. There are many problems that can arise from workplace exposure to lead, including issues with fertility and childbirth, kidney disease and damage to the nervous system. Though most countries have now banned leaded petrol, for years it caused widespread health problems, especially for children growing up in urban environments where the air pollution was higher.
Environmental Effects
Substances are classed as hazardous if they’re harmful to either human health or the environment. There is a great deal of overlap between the two, with many hazardous substances posing a threat to both.
Widely used in agriculture, pesticides need to be used with the utmost care to avoid damage to wildlife. One of the most extreme examples of this is DDT (dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane). Banned in the UK in 1986 and worldwide in 2001, DDT is thought to be responsible for the deaths of millions of birds and other animals. Other kinds of pesticides are believed to pose a risk to insect and hedgehog populations.
In many offices, the most common form of potentially hazardous waste is used electrical equipment. Chemicals present in laptops, mobile phones and lighting equipment can all contribute. It’s very important that such waste is disposed of correctly to eliminate any environmental damage. The Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive (WEEE Directive) provides employer obligations and targets for reducing this kind of waste in businesses.
Almost all companies handle hazardous substances during their work, so every organisation needs to carefully consider their potential effects on their workers, the public, animals and the environment. When safety regulations are followed and hazardous waste is removed responsibly, these effects can be minimised – and hopefully, employees won’t be left to deal with debilitating health conditions years down the line.

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“Hazardous substances” is a broad term covering many different products found in workplaces. It can be defined as any material, whether solid, liquid or gas, that is potentially harmful to people or the environment. Hazardous substances may be used in work processes or they may be by-products of them.

The primary piece of UK legislation dealing with protection from hazardous substances is the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations 2002 (COSHH). Lead, asbestos and radioactive materials are not specifically covered under COSHH because they have specialist requirements and as such have their own legislation. All of these would come under the umbrella term “hazardous substances”.

Types of Hazardous Substances

Hazardous substances can be classified by which type of problem they can cause. This can often be seen from the label on their packaging. Since 2015, hazard warning pictograms have appeared on a white background with red edges. Staff training on recognising these and their meanings can be very helpful in identifying hazards. They include warnings for materials that are flammable, corrosive or toxic.

COSHH covers, among other substances:

– Chemicals and products containing chemicals

– Fumes, dust, vapours and mists, including those arising from work activities such as painting

– Nanotechnology

– Gases

– Germs, including legionella (the bacteria the causes Legionnaires’ disease and other health problems)

The effects of these substances range from relatively mild, such as temporary skin irritation, through to potentially fatal. Some will be immediately harmful and others can cause symptoms many years in the future.

There are three main ways that people can come into contact with hazardous substances: by inhaling them, by ingesting them or by coming into skin contact with them.

Common Types of Hazardous Substances in Workplaces

Almost every organisation will have hazardous substances that their employees might encounter during their working day.

Cleaning products such as bleach or disinfectant class as potentially hazardous substances, as they can cause injury (such as skin or eye problems) or environmental hazards if they aren’t properly disposed of. Paints, glues and solvents are hazardous substances too, and must be used with the greatest of care. The misuse of hazardous substances can have devastating consequences; in 2015 two brothers were killed when they were given highly flammable thinners to remove dried carpet tile adhesive from a floor they were working on. Unfortunately, these caught light and caused an explosive fire, killing the brothers and severely injuring a third worker. Their employer, Clearview Design and Construction Ltd, was prosecuted under the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 and the owner given an eight month jail sentence.

Many medical, agricultural or scientific workplaces will have other kinds of hazardous substances on-site. Examples of these are acids, heavy metals, pesticides and solvents. All of these substances need to be accounted for in their COSHH risk assessments and their workers suitably protected from the hazards.

With some processes, hazardous substances are by-products rather than ingredients. Proper ventilation systems can help protect workers against the effects of fumes and industrial dust. In the catering industry, for example, some substances in cooking fumes have been linked with an increased cancer risk, so it’s vital that these effects are controlled.

Electrical equipment including laptops and mobile phones become “hazardous waste” when they are discarded, so they need to be disposed of by accredited waste management companies.

Other Hazardous Substances Legislation

As well as COSHH, there are other pieces of legislation that cover hazardous substances and their control and handling:

– DSEAR – Dangerous Substances and Explosive Atmospheres Regulations, 2002

This concerns all materials that can carry an explosion risk. Any substance that can contribute to an explosive atmosphere is covered under DSEAR.

– Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012

With thousands of people dying from the effects of asbestos exposure every year, making sure asbestos is identified and dealt with appropriately is still as important as ever.

– Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation & Restriction of Chemicals (REACH)

REACH is a European Union regulation that affects substances that are manufactured or imported into the EU in quantities of one tonne or more each year.

All companies no matter what their industry deal with hazardous substances of some kind. It’s important that these are recognised and any potentially harmful effects to workers, the public and the environment are minimised. With the correct control measures, in many cases the risk from hazardous substances can be eliminated altogether.

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When hazardous substances are present in the workplace, it’s very important the risks are properly recognised and dealt with to ensure the safety of all employees.
The risks from most hazardous substances can easily be handled by employing several sensible control measures to minimise their dangers.
Risk Assessments
Under COSHH, all employers must conduct a risk assessment detailing the hazardous substances they are working with, the associated risks and how these are minimised or eliminated. Risk assessments should be reviewed regularly and need to be amended if a new hazardous substance is introduced to the workplace.
The risk assessment should achieve the following things:
Identify the hazards – Work out which substances are harmful, with reference to their product label or MSDS (material safety data sheet) if required. Include any substances that are produced by work processes as well.
Decide who might be in danger from the substance – Who is likely to come into contact with the substance and who is at greater risk of prolonged exposure? This includes visitors to the site, contractors and the public as well as employees.
Plan what can be done to minimise exposure – Control measures need to be put into place to make sure nobody comes to any harm from exposure to the hazardous substance.

Hierarchy of Control Measures
Introducing appropriate control measures is a key part of an employer’s responsibility under COSHH. Organisations can decide on the right control measures by thinking about the hierarchy:
Elimination – By far the best way to handle a threat to employees’ health and wellbeing is to eliminate it entirely. Is the process that requires or produces the hazardous substance actually necessary? If so, is the hazardous substance a necessary ingredient? By banning lead in petrol in January 2000, the UK government removed a hazard by eliminating the harmful substance.
Substitution – Sometimes, the process and substance in question are indeed necessary, but can be replaced with other, less dangerous alternatives. When considering alternatives, it might help to think about the hazardous substance in terms of “function, use and need” – which properties make the substance useful in this context, and are there less toxic alternatives that share these properties? In the textile industry, for example, there are many different substances that can be used instead of phthalates in PVC. However, there would be different substitutions depending on what use the substance served in the process.
“Substitution” can refer to the substance itself or the process that uses it. Either can be swapped for better alternatives depending on the circumstances.
Engineering Controls – These control measures involve removing the hazard from the worker, as far as possible. They may involve redesigning processes or equipment so that there is a physical barrier. In the best case scenario, moving the operator to a remote location or automating the hazardous part of a process removes the contact between the employee and the hazardous substance entirely.
Ventilation systems can be put in place to safely remove any fumes before they’re inhaled. Industries dealing with chemicals, paints or foodstuffs can find these useful.
Administrative Controls – Providing information and training to employees to make sure safety procedures are followed is an important step in controlling hazardous substances. Effective training is part of an employer’s role under COSHH, and the only reason it’s ranked below the other control systems is because it relies on human behaviour and should therefore be used in conjunction with other control measures where possible.
Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) – As the last line of defence protecting workers from direct contact with the hazardous substance, PPE should only be used as a last resort and in conjunction with other control measures further up the hierarchy. Gloves, footwear, body suits and ear and eye protection must all be provided by the employer if they’re required to perform part of an employee’s job.
In 2014, a 21-year-old agency worker on his first day of full-time employment was left seriously injured after being exposed to alkaline cement slurry whilst wearing inadequate PPE. He needed plastic surgery and was left with lifelong scars on his legs. His employers, Stressline Limited, were fined £12,000 and ordered to pay costs of £2,121. Unfortunately, the effects on the young worker were severe and he was reporting problems walking even a year after the incident.
There are control measures to suit all situations and it’s up to employers to decide which ones will be most effective for protecting their workers, their clients and the environment. Risk assessments are very helpful tools for deciding which techniques should be used.

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Waste is considered hazardous if it, or any of its ingredients, pose a potential threat to human health or the environment. It can come in solid, liquid or gas form. The UK produces over 4 million tonnes of hazardous waste every year, so it’s vital it is treated and disposed of safely, with its harmful effects eliminated.
What Counts as Hazardous Waste?
Almost all businesses will produce hazardous waste. Items such as batteries, printer toners, laptop computers and paint cans can all be classified as hazardous and need to be disposed of with the greatest care. Organisations dealing with special kinds of chemical or medical waste also need to be sure they are disposing of it safely in a way that protects their workers, the public, animals and the environment.
The Environment Agency provides detailed guidance on classifying waste as hazardous or non-hazardous. Different types of waste have their own waste classification code (also known as a LoW (List of Waste) or EWC (European Waste Catalogue) code).
Providing contractors with this information forms part of an employer’s duty of care and helps to ensure the waste is treated appropriately.
Under the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations 2002 (COSHH), employers must carry out a risk assessment for any hazardous materials on-site. This ensures workers are kept safe and appropriately trained in how to deal with any hazardous substances they encounter at work.

How Should Hazardous Waste be Disposed of?
Once the hazardous waste is correctly classified, it becomes easier to think about which steps should be taken to handle it correctly. It’s illegal to mix hazardous and non-hazardous waste, or to mix different types of hazardous waste, so it must be stored carefully. If a used light bulb (some of which are classified as hazardous) is thrown into a dustbin containing otherwise non-hazardous waste, for example, the entire bin could be classified as hazardous and would need to be handled with special care.
Specialist waste management companies can transport hazardous materials away from your workplace safely. To do so, they will require an accurate waste classification code, along with:
– the substance’s name and the process that produced it
– any risks associated with the waste
– a chemical and physical analysis of it
With proper treatment to remove the hazardous elements, certain types of waste can be recycled, which reduces landfill and helps the environment.
The penalties for the incorrect handling of hazardous waste are severe, since the consequences can be very serious or even deadly. In 2017, Churngold Recycling Ltd were ordered to pay more than £30,000 in fines and costs after supplying toxic material to a building site in Avonmouth. They had removed over 30,000 tonnes of waste containing asbestos, heavy metals and hazardous chemicals (including cyanide) from a site, and were supposed to treat this waste and recycle it so that it was safe to use in the construction of a new Co-op distribution centre. Once delivered, the material was judged to be highly unsafe, causing health issues for workers at the new site. Some workers reported irritated eyes and issues caused by the smell of the materials. The company and its directors were prosecuted, and the business suffered heavy financial losses.
What Needs to be Done While the Hazardous Waste is in the Workplace?
Before the hazardous waste can be transported away, it might be necessary to store it for a short time. It should be kept away from ordinary waste and any fire safety concerns should be addressed in terms of where and how it’s stored; it might pose a fire risk if it’s left in direct sunlight, for example. It helps to check the requirements and laws regarding the type of hazardous waste in question. Collection by an authorised and registered waste carrier must take place as soon as possible.
Under COSHH, all employees must be trained in any hazardous substances they come into contact with. Their contact with it should be minimised as far as possible and they must be provided with any Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) they need.
Companies that don’t work with toxic chemicals or highly flammable substances regularly may not realise that hazardous waste is a subject they need to consider, but all businesses produce hazardous waste and all are subject to the requirements of COSHH. By working to ensure all hazardous waste is recognised, classified and disposed of correctly, employers can make sure that people and the environment are protected.

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Hazardous substances can be a major threat to the health, safety and wellbeing of employees. It’s vital they are properly trained and informed about potential hazards they face in their working day so they can handle any hazardous substances they come into contact with safely.

Under the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations 2002 (COSHH), employers need to prevent or limit their employees’ exposure to hazardous substances. Making sure they’re aware of the proper safety procedures around hazardous substances is a key part of this, helping workers to stay safe during their working lives and employers to stay on the right side of the law.

The Benefits of Hazardous Substances Training

Regardless of whether your company handles toxic chemicals daily or if you consider yourself at low risk for hazardous substances, employee training can have many positive effects on your staff and your business.

Safety – the most important duty any employer has towards their staff is to make sure they return home safe and sound at the end of their working day. When employees are informed of the possible dangers of substances they use during their work, they are more likely to follow the safety procedures in place, and less likely to endanger themselves and others through the improper handling of hazardous substances.

In an emergency such as a chemical spillage or a colleague ingesting a hazardous substance, every second counts. When staff are properly trained, they will know the correct way to handle the situation and improve the outcomes for everyone involved.

Legal compliance – COSHH is the most important piece of legislation dealing with hazardous substances in the workplace. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) takes breaches very seriously and prosecutes regularly. Legislation dealing with the transport of hazardous substances has also led to corporate prosecutions.

In 2015, two firms were charged after a lorry driver was directed to make a 12 mile journey despite his consignment of corrosive potassium hydroxide having leaked. The driver correctly informed his transport supervisor of the leak and asked that the emergency services be called, but was instead directed to drive to a nearby depot before assistance was requested. Along with this mistake, the laboratory that had loaded the van were using an inexperienced loader who hadn’t packed a hazardous delivery before. It appears that extra training in both cases would have helped matters and perhaps avoided the dangers and £20,000 costs to the companies.

Financial benefits – put simply,good health and safety training makes good business sense.

Accidents involving hazardous substances can cause financial loss from damage to equipment or the shutdown of manufacturing and production facilities. Any perceived failure to ensure employees’ wellbeing can cause bad publicity and make it harder to attract and retain employees in the future.

In late 2015, Capper Group Industrial Contractors Limited were fined £10,000 after an employee became “engulfed” in hot caustic lime dust and suffered chemical burns. The incident took place at the Tata Chemicals Europe Limited plant in Lostock. This incident, along with an accident at a different plant involving a fall from height, led to Tata being fined £349,850 with costs of £58,392. This illustrates the financial penalties that can come from the unsafe handling of hazardous substances in the workplace. An employer’s duty of care extends to contractors and members of the public as well as their own employees.

An investment in quality training can stop these problems before they’ve begun by providing workers with a thorough grounding in the safe way to handle hazardous substances.

High Quality Hazardous Substance Training

There are many options available for training your staff in hazardous substances. Increasingly, employers are turning towards eLearning courses, attracted by the effectiveness of such methods, their value for money and their time efficiency when compared to alternative methods.

They increase employees’ retention of the key facts – by up to six times, according to one study. They are also one of the least time-consuming ways to learn, allowing employees to cover the material at their own pace and return to any difficult subjects at their leisure. Refresher training, taken annually, is also easier to provide and keep track of.

Companies that effectively train their employees in the dangers and uses of hazardous substances are safer to work for and avoid negative personal, financial and legal repercussions. All organisations are subject to COSHH legislation, so good quality employee training in hazardous substances can have benefits across all sectors.

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For any employer, the health and safety of its employees and the public has to be at the top of the priorities list. Controlling hazardous substances in the workplace is one of the key elements of this. With an estimated 13,000 deaths each year in the UK attributed to past exposure at work (usually chemicals or dust), it’s impossible to overstate its importance.
What Kinds of Hazardous Substances are in the Workplace?
“Hazardous substances” is a term covering many products and materials. It refers to anything that can cause people health problems or damage to the environment. Both products used in work processes or the by-products of them can count as hazardous substances. Most companies produce some form of hazardous waste, which must be disposed of correctly.
Common hazardous substances in the workplace include:
– Chemicals like disinfectants, pesticides, and paint
– Fumes and dusts
– Biological agents
For packaged products, it’s possible to see which type of hazard a particular substance might be by looking for its warning symbol. Corrosive, flammable, oxidising and environmentally damaging products can be recognised this way, and many employees will find it beneficial to familiarise themselves with the meanings of each of these symbols
When identifying workplace hazards, it’s useful to consider the main entry pathways into the body for hazardous substances. They are inhalation (breathing the substance or its fumes in), absorption (coming into contact with the substance via the skin or eyes), ingestion (swallowing the substance) and injection (direct entry of the substance into the bloodstream). The risks of all of these can be minimised with effective control measures and employee protection.

Chemicals – Acids and pesticides are examples of chemicals used in particular industries, requiring specialist handling. However, all workplaces will have some form of chemical hazard present. Everyday cleaning products class as hazardous substances and must be properly stored and handled, with any employee using them receiving adequate protection.
Fumes and dusts – Many work processes produce fumes, from food preparation to painting to welding. Taken into the body through inhalation, they can cause respiratory diseases or, longer term, certain forms of cancer. Ventilation systems are one example of control measures that can minimise the risk of exposure.
There have been cases of employees of bakeries developing occupational asthma as a result of inhaling flour dust. In one case, a 51 year old man developed the condition over 15 years. He was able to continue in his job when he was moved to a less dusty area of the bakery, given appropriate Respiratory Protective Equipment (RPE) and medical treatment for his symptoms. Sadly, the effects of years of direct exposure cannot be reversed and it’s likely he will continue to suffer from respiratory ill health for the rest of his life. Two other workers at the same place developed it but luckily, their health issues were recognised earlier and they were able to receive better medical treatment.
Biological agents – Hospitals, labs and universities will all have access to biological hazards such as germs. Medical waste such as blood can also be highly hazardous and needs to be disposed of carefully.
Legionella, the bacteria that causes Legionnaires’ disease, can be present in any workplace and it’s important to ensure water safety standards are in place to avoid it.
Substances requiring specialist handling – Asbestos and radioactive material need to be handled in particular ways due to their potential to cause health damage.
How Should Workplaces Handle Hazardous Substances?
The Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations 2002 (COSHH) covers most of the hazardous substances in workplace. Under these regulations, employers must conduct a thorough risk assessment. All employees must be made aware of potential hazards and the relevant safety procedures.
When most people think of protecting workers against the effects of hazardous substances, they think of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) such as eyewear, gloves and hard hats. Although PPE is an important safety measure – and any PPE required for a job must be provided free of charge to all workers who need it – it’s the last line of defence against a hazardous substance, and there are steps employers can take before thinking about relying on clothing.
COSHH requires employers to prevent or reduce their staff’s exposure to hazardous substances.
Prevention – The best way to lessen the danger from a hazardous substance is to remove it entirely or remove the process that requires it. Automating the process also eliminates the need for workers to interact with the substance directly.
Reduction – When a process requiring a hazardous substance can’t be removed, it can sometimes be re-designed in a way that lessens the danger. Considering the substance’s properties can lead to the realisation that another, less hazardous product could do the same job.
Engineering controls (such as ventilation systems or creating a physical barrier between the worker and the potentially dangerous process) and administrative controls (such as training staff on vital safety information) can be very helpful. In one case, a welding company in Birmingham was served with an improvement notice to reduce its employees’ exposure to fumes. Some workers were facing up to eight hours of exposure a day to fumes that had been linked with COPD, asthma and chronic bronchitis. By fitting a local exhaust ventilation system (LEV), the company was able to reduce exposure and protect the welders’ health – as well as avoid prosecution.
With the use of hazardous substances forming an integral part of most workplaces, it’s very important that all workplace hazards are recognised and dealt with effectively.

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Hazard symbols are there to alert people to the presence of a potentially harmful substance. In 2015, 17% of workers in the EU were exposed to chemical products for at least a quarter of their working hours, with 15% regularly breathing in the resulting fumes and dusts. The potential for long-term damage to these workers’ health is dangerously high, so it’s important for everyone to be familiar with the different kinds of hazardous substances and how these should be handled in a working environment.

The old European symbols were phased out and replaced with the CLP (Classification, Labelling and Packaging) pictograms in 2015, which are harmonised with international hazard symbol usage. Some are similar to their equivalent symbols under the previous system, but there are differences, so it is important to be clear about which each one means – especially for workers who use hazardous substances in any part of their job.

The symbols are very useful for working out which substances are potentially harmful, which is vital information when writing COSHH risk assessments.

Flammable (Flame) – Products labelled as flammable are at a particularly high risk of catching fire. Petrol is one example, though it is important to remember that many materials – whether labelled as flammable or not – can pose a fire risk under the right conditions. All flammable products should be kept as far away as possible from any spark that could ignite a fire.

Oxidising (Flame over circle) – These substances can react violently with other substances and can cause, or feed, a fire. Bleach falls into this category.

Potential warnings include “keep away from heat” and “wear protective gloves”. Specific information should be on the product label or included in the relevant MSDS (material safety data sheet).

Explosives (Explosion) – Fireworks and certain types of ammunition can cause explosions if not handled correctly. Often substances labelled with this symbol require specialist care and should always be kept away from heat sources such as open flames.

Gas under pressure (Gas cylinder) – Often found in medical or scientific workplaces, these substances can cause explosions if heated. In other cases, containers marked with this symbol may contain refrigerated gas, which can cause cryogenic burns.

These substances might need to be kept out of direct sunlight or away from sources of heat and should always be handled with care.

Toxic (Skull and crossbones) – Materials marked with this ominous symbol pose the most serious of health risks. Swallowing, ingesting or coming into contact with them with bare skin can all prove fatal. Emergency medical care should be sought immediately if this happens.

Serious/long term health hazard (Human silhouette with white star shape) – Turpentine and certain oils can cause severe and long-term health issues if swallowed. Any substances that can cause cancer, respiratory diseases, damage to a pregnant person or their unborn child or genetic defects should have this label on their container.

Advice may include avoiding swallowing or breathing in the product, cleaning any surface it contacts thoroughly after use and avoiding it entirely for people with particular medical conditions.

Health hazard (Exclamation mark) – Materials marked with this symbol are potential irritants or can cause other health issues, such as drowsiness or respiratory problems. Substances which can cause damage to health when they come into contact with the skin, or are inhaled or swallowed, are included.

Many day to day cleaning products have this warning on their labels.

Corrosive (Substance burning hand and surface) – Substances labelled with the Corrosive symbol can cause damage to materials such as metal and severe injuries when they come into contact with someone, particularly the skin and eyes.

Lots of acids are corrosive, as well as drain cleaners and ammonia. These substances should be handled with extreme care and all necessary Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) should be worn.

Environmental Hazard (Dead fish and tree) – This symbol is attributed to substances that pose a significant danger to the environment. For example, they may be hazardous to aquatic life and have the potential to cause long-term harm.

Pesticides and fuel may fall under this banner and need to be disposed of with extra care.

Hazardous Substances in the Workplace

It’s important that all staff are trained to recognise hazardous substances and how to handle them safely. Refresher training is particularly vital in this case, as the pre-2015 orange and black symbols differ from the new pictograms introduced by the CLP Regulation and workers need to recognise the new system.

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