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Written by
on 07 October 2021

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Control of Substances Hazardous to Health legislation, or COSHH, is the legislation pertaining to hazardous substances in the workplace. It is vital but often misunderstood.

Essentially, COSHH sets out the responsibility of employers when it comes to controlling potentially dangerous chemicals and keeping workers safe.

Although most companies that deal in dangerous substances are usually aware of this and understand their responsibilities, there are some companies that utilise or produce less obviously dangerous substances who are entirely unaware they even have responsibilities under COSHH.

Whether this is due to lack of attention to safety management, or simply down to poor communication between management, procurement, and employees, not being compliant with COSHH can put workers at serious risk, and land employers in legal hot water should something go wrong.

What is COSHH?

Essentially, COSHH applies wherever dangerous substances are present. This term covers a range of substances, including:

  • Chemicals
  • Products containing chemicals
  • Fumes
  • Dust
  • Vapour
  • Mist
  • Nanotechnology
  • Gases and asphyxiating gases
  • Biological agents (if the packaging has any of the hazard symbols then it is classed as a hazardous substance.)
  • Germs that cause diseases such as leptospirosis or legionnaires disease and germs used in laboratories.

Most people are aware of how dangerous chemicals and gases can be, for example. However, it is not immediately obvious that substances such as dust, fumes, and even nanotechnology fall under the purview of COSHH. Even substances such as everyday cleaning fluids could mean COSHH responsibilities.

Employers could be blissfully unaware that they are neglecting an entire aspect of Health and Safety legislation. Unfortunately, being unaware of their responsibilities is not a valid excuse should the HSE inspectors come knocking.

What do I need to do?

Fundamentally, if you deal in any of the above substances, you have responsibilities under COSHH.

If you’ve realised you have COSHH obligations, don’t panic. Like most health and safety legislation, complying with COSHH mainly requires common sense and a reasonable dedication to improving safety culture across your business. Remember, health and safety hasn’t gone mad, only the perception of it.

If COSHH applies to you, you are legally required to do the following:

  • Carry out an assessment to identify what the substances are and where they are present. Your risk assessment should clearly state what risks these substances pose and to who.
  • Identify the relevant control measures to reduce potential harm.
  • Enforce these measures and ensure employees understand them with information and training where needed.
  • Provide monitoring where necessary.
  • Plan for emergencies.

Let’s break each of these aspects down and simplify them.

Assess the risk

As with most aspects of health and safety management, a solid foundation is crucial, and you can ensure that by carrying out a comprehensive risk assessment.

To be compliant with COSHH, you need to make sure your risk assessment includes provisions for identifying and categorising the risk of dangerous substances.

To properly identify these risks, the HSE recommends assessors:

  • Walk around their workplace and visually assess the potential for exposure to substances that might be hazardous to health, whether from dust, fumes, and gas emissions, or physical contact with fluids, pastes, and dusts.
  • Identify which ways the substances are harmful to health.
  • Read safety data sheets for the substances or, if produced by work being carried out, seek out HSE information for that specific substance.
  • Identify which tasks are likely to lead to exposure, and identify what control measures are already in use.

The HSE provides comprehensive step by step guidance for assessing the risk posed by dangerous substances, which can inform your assessments.

Identify and implement relevant control measures

Once you have identified the risks posed by substances on your site or premises, the next step is identifying and implementing the best way to tackle these risks.

Ask yourself if there is another way tasks can be carried out to reduce the usage or creation of hazardous substances. In some cases, you might be able to eliminate exposure altogether, which is far preferable to implementing control measures.

There are a few different types of control measures, including:

  • Using equipment such as enclosures or equipment. There are many different types of extraction solutions, ranging from general ventilation to local exhaust ventilation. If these are impractical, you can utilise refuge areas and respiratory equipment.
  • Controlling procedures by changing ways of working. This can be done in a few ways, such as by reducing task regularity or lowering the number of workers exposed. You can also implement greater supervision or additional measures such as decontamination procedures or permits to work for specialist tasks.
  • Worker behaviour. Workers should be wearing relevant PPE and using control equipment where necessary.

Enforce these measures and ensure employees understand them

Even the best thought out risk controls are only effective if employees actually follow them.

The inherent unpredictability of human workers – or ‘the Human Factor’ – can render risk management procedures useless. The key to overcoming this in the first instance is understanding your workers as human beings to understand potential triggers of risky behaviour, and getting them engaged in your workplace culture.

Don’t assume your workers immediately know and understand procedures either; you should strive to communicate any new procedures clearly. Include employees in safety updates, and hold physical meetings where you explain how and why these new measures were introduced. You need to ensure workers are trained in relevant procedures and understand the reasoning behind them.

If a worker fails to follow the procedures, don’t immediately resort to punishment. Understand why they failed to follow the procedure, and utilise safety coaching to train them and make sure it does not happen again.

Monitor controls, and plan for emergencies

Regularly analyse the effectiveness of your control measures, and update them if necessary.

Collate information regarding incidents, accidents, and near misses highlighting gaps in your procedures. A crucial part of effective monitoring is ensuring workers themselves are involved and feel comfortable coming to you to report their concerns if things aren’t right.

Finally, prepare for things to go wrong. Your controls can never be foolproof. According to the HSE, you are legally required to:

  • Have equipment in place to cope with spills and exposures, including protective equipment and decontamination procedures.
  • Specify first aid and emergency procedures to deal with casualties.
  • Ensure people are trained to take the right action: first aiders, fire marshals etc.
  • Make arrangements to deal with the waste created.

You should consider how you would make this information available to emergency services in a crisis. Furthermore, it is crucial that you communicate emergency procedures to employees.

Summary

This is a very basic guide to the fundamental aspects of COSHH and how it relates to employers. You can visit the Health and Safety Executive COSHH webpage for more in-depth guidance and further resources.

It’s vital that everyone meets their fundamental responsibilities under COSHH and all relevant regulations, to keep workers safe and avoid legal troubles should an accident occur. However, making a real effort to go above and beyond what is legally required can have a positive impact on your workplace culture, and offer benefits everywhere from worker happiness to efficiency and profit.

At Veritas Consulting, we’ve worked closely with thousands of businesses over two decades to help them achieve fantastic safety cultures, with independent advice and our range of solutions. If you think we might be able to help you, call today on 0800 1488 677, or use the online contact form above.

A chartered (fellow) safety and risk management practitioner with 20+ years of experience. David provides a healthy dose of how-to articles, advice and guidance to make compliance easier for construction professionals, Architects and the built environment. Get social with David on Twitter, Facebook and Linkedin.

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