What is COSHH?
COSHH is an acronym for Control of Substances Hazardous to Health. It applies to a wide range of materials you might encounter in the workplace, from the obvious poisons and lethal blades to more inconspicuous types, like dust and fumes. According to UK government regulations introduced in 2002, employers are required by law to identify any such substances in their workplace and determine what is necessary to control them. Workers must be safe from exposure and properly trained in awareness of hazardous substances. They must also know what procedures to follow in the event of any emergency.
What is considered a hazardous substance?
Different trades involve exposure to varying hazardous substances at work, but these are broadly divided into four main categories:
The circumstances in which they can be injurious include:
- Direct physical contact with the body
- Absorption through the skin
Full information is provided by the government's Health & Safety Executive (HSE), together with useful guides and resources.
Workers who are exposed to the threats posed by hazardous substances may suffer immediate or long-term ill effects if they're not properly controlled. In some circumstances, occupational diseases may not manifest themselves until some time after the worker encounters the hazardous substance. This was the case with asbestosis. It took a hundred years of research until asbestos was banned, but during that time many people in many industries suffered and even died. Today, asbestos is recognised as such a major threat that it has its own set of regulations.
How do you know what to look for?
Part of the COSHH Regulations is a list of hazardous substances and what levels of exposure are permitted in the workplace. These workplace exposure limits (WEL) indicate what concentrations of hazardous substances are permissible when measured over a certain time span. Short-term exposure is defined as up to 15 minutes, where substances may, for example, cause severe irritation to the eyes. Long-term exposure is measured over 8 hours and takes account of more subtle threats caused by inhalation or absorption. The WEL tables are updated to include new threats and exposure levels, particularly those posed by biological and biochemical agents. Business owners should note that WELs are legally binding, and a copy can be downloaded for free from the HSE website.
What do you need to do?
In the first instance, you need to find out what potential health hazards from hazardous substances exist in your place of work, and how you can prevent exposure to them. Some of these are obvious, if, for example, you're operating a biotech lab or working in a dust-intensive environment. Paint, bleach, corrosive chemicals and pressured gases are also easy to identify. However, some hazardous substances only come into being as a result of a manufacturing process.
Your health and safety management programme should therefore start with a comprehensive risk assessment, that takes both the visible and invisible hazards into account. We can help you with this, and also determine what control measures you'll require.