Getting to grips with COSHH in your workplace

Wednesday November 24, 2021

As you may well know, COSHH stands for Control of Substances Hazardous to Health. It refers to a set of regulations introduced in 2002 that require employers to prevent or reduce exposure to hazardous substances in the workplace.

While you may be familiar with COSHH in a general sense, many employers are unsure of their exact obligations. The penalties and consequences for non-compliance can be severe, so it’s a good idea to reacquaint yourself with the rules. In this blog we’ll explain what is meant by a hazardous substance and what you need to do to comply with the law.

What counts as a hazardous substance?

For the purposes of COSHH, a hazardous substance is any substance with the potential to cause harm to humans. It will usually fall into one of the nine classes of dangerous goods, indicated by a hazard symbol on the label.

Most hazardous substances are fairly obvious, but some are more surprising. Common examples include:

  • Chemicals that can irritate the skin or eyes
  • Substances that emit dust or fumes
  • Substances that emit vapour or mist
  • Gases that can cause asphyxiation
  • Germs that can cause disease (this usually applies to laboratories)

A recent addition to COSHH is nanotechnology. This is a broad category covering any technology that manipulates material on a minute scale. Because nanotechnology is so new, many of the risks are still unknown. Research is ongoing into the effects of accidental ingestion or absorption of nanomaterials. For this reason, the HSE advises a precautionary approach.

Some substances are clearly dangerous but do not fall under COSHH regulations. This is because they have their own specific legislation. The three main examples are lead, asbestos and radioactive materials.

What do employers need to do?

Employers have six main duties under COSHH. If they are relevant to you, you must:

  • Limit exposure to hazardous substances as much as possible
  • Implement appropriate control measures around hazardous substances
  • Provide adequate training on how to interact with hazardous substances
  • Put in place emergency procedures in case of an accident involving a hazardous substance
  • Supervise employees to ensure they are following COSHH guidelines
  • Ensure that any unavoidable exposure to hazardous substances doesn’t exceed the Workplace Exposure Limit (WEL)

A risk assessment is vital

The penalties for violating COSHH can be severe. In a recent case, a company was fined £100,000 for exposing employees to hazardous photographic chemicals. They were ordered to pay a further £30,000 in costs. The exposure took place over a period of four years and resulted in three workers contracting a severe form of dermatitis. The company was prosecuted for failing to protect its employees and for failing to report the cases of dermatitis.

In order to avoid a similar situation, you need to be vigilant about spotting hazardous substances and taking steps to reduce the risk of harm. The best way to do this is by carrying out a COSHH risk assessment. The specifics of your risk assessment will depend on your business, but it should always contain three basic elements:

  • Identify the hazardous substances in your workplace. This can usually be done by checking the packaging. If you are unsure about a substance, you should contact the supplier.
  • Identify the people who may be harmed and how this could occur. Can the substance be inhaled, absorbed through the skin or swallowed? Are any staff members exposed to the substance on a regular basis?  Are there increased risks to women of childbearing age?
  • Decide on precautions. Is there a way to stop using the substance altogether?If not, how can you minimise the risk? Try to contain harmful substances to certain areas and limit the number of people who work with them. You should also make sure that areas of potential contamination are cleaned regularly using the correct equipment.

We’re here to help

COSHH legislation is complicated and getting it wrong can have serious consequences. That’s why it pays to ask the experts. We can provide tailor-made advice on every aspect of your COSHH policy, from helping you with your risk assessment to choosing the right protective equipment. Contact your local Health & Safety Dept today to get started.

Sensible Safety Solutions

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