What your employer should do about hazardous substances

The main regulations governing how employers manage harmful substances are the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations 2002, often abbreviated to the COSHH Regulations. They cover all substances that can damage your health.

The COSHH Regulations do not cover work with asbestos, lead or radiation because these substances are governed by their own sets of regulations.

Much like other health and safety regulations, COSHH requires employers to either prevent exposure to hazardous substances altogether or, where that is not possible, reduce it to as low as is reasonably practicable.

Employers must carry out a COSHH risk assessment, and implement the controls it identifies, before employees start work with any hazardous substance. This COSHH risk assessment must consider:

  • the processes that involve or create hazardous substances
  • how these cause harm
  • how this harm can be reduced.

To gauge how dangerous processes are, employers will need to gather information on the substances. This can come from a variety of sources, such as the HSE, the internet or suppliers. Chemical products should be supplied with a safety data sheet. This document describes the hazards the chemical presents, and gives information on handling, storage and emergency measures in case of accident.

Employers must work out if it is possible to eliminate the risk. This could include substituting a hazardous substance with another that presents less, or no, risk; or adopting a different work process which doesn’t create a hazardous form of that substance.

If it is not possible to eliminate the risk, steps should be taken to reduce exposure. This might involve enclosing the work process so that fumes cannot escape; installing a ventilation system, which extracts dust or gases; or introducing methods of work – operating procedures, supervision and training – which mean the process isn’t as dangerous.

Personal protective equipment, like masks or gloves, should be used only as a last resort if other methods of reducing exposure cannot adequately control the risk. This is because if it fails, for example if it is not worn correctly or it breaks, it will offer no protection.

Different substances will require employers to take different steps, but the overarching principles are the same regardless of the substance.

In some cases, employers have to monitor the health of employees who work with hazardous substances. This is to check whether the steps they are taking to reduce exposure are effective. This is necessary if there have been previous cases of work-related ill health in the workplace or industry; or where there is still some risks posed by the hazardous substances, despite the steps taken to reduce them.

Employers must tell workers about the hazards and risks of any substances they are required to work with, and how to keep themselves safe.

For some substances, the HSE has established what is known as a “workplace exposure limit”, often abbreviated to WEL. These are maximum concentrations of substances in the air, averaged over a period of time. They are intended to prevent excessive exposure. These WELs provide an additional layer of legal protection to the steps outlined above, and must be complied with. However, it is usually possible for employers to reduce employees’ exposure beyond them. When it is, employers must do so.

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