Working with Chemicals: The Classification System
Chemicals are deeply embedded in the way we live, including our working lives. That means the responsibility for them passes to employers. Hazardous substances, including chemicals, are strictly regulated by the government to protect the health and safety of human beings. To make sure that every type of substance and its associated hazards is identified, a classification system exists. This helps anyone working in an environment where chemicals may be present to conduct an informed risk assessment.
What is the classification system?
The classification system is based on a set of internationally agreed rules, which are known as criteria. It’s up to the manufacturers and suppliers of hazardous chemicals to follow these rules in identifying whether a substance is hazardous or not. The criteria are the factors by which this identification is made. They involve various situations where a human being might be harmed by the substance.
The criteria are divided into three basic categories: physical reactions, health risks and environmental harm.
Physical hazards relate to whether a chemical substance is likely to catch fire, blow up or otherwise cause a physical threat.
Health hazards assess the potential of a chemical substance to cause damage to human health. This can go from minor irritants that attack the eyes or skin, to major health threats like cancer or asbestosis.
Environmental hazards relate to the potential of a chemical substance to harm the natural environment, like polluting rivers or leaching into the soil.
The classification of a chemical takes into account not only what the hazards are, but the degree of harm they might cause. It also involves an assessment of how real the threat of these results actually is, and how concentrated the chemical might need to be to cause them. Each substance is given a set of numerical identification codes. These include its type, class and chemical name, plus a symbol that can be used in pictograms on the item itself.
Working with chemicals
Anyone who’s responsible for health and safety management is legally obliged to complete a COSHH risk assessment, which includes the identification and control of hazardous substances. Employees will need training to understand and identify the risks. Part of this training may involve reading and understanding the classification codes on items that contain hazardous chemicals. Even in an office environment, you’re likely to encounter cleaning fluids and solvents, for example, and things like toner for the copy machine or printer.
In other working environments, your employees might be coming into direct contact with chemical substances. People working in many industries may encounter fumes, dust, solvents and toxic gases, to name but a few. Laboratories of all types are particularly hazardous, and there are special risks involved in doing a COSHH assessment for offshore applications.
In these cases, far more rigorous training is required to ensure that people are fully conversant with the risks and how to avoid them. In these situations, it may be helpful to look into Competent Persons Assistance to ensure that you’re fully covered.