An important health and safety element for many companies is dealing with COSHH requirements – the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health. In 2017, 13,000 deaths were estimated to be due to past exposure to hazardous substances at work. Occupational lung diseases accounted for 12,000 of these. Additionally, there have been 18,000 new cases of work-related breathing or lung problems per year for the last three years. An estimated 200-300 new cases of occupational asthma are seen by physicians each year, a figure that has stayed the same for the last decade.
While there are many substances that people can be exposed to in the workplace that they’re likely to realise may be hazardous to their health (such as acids, alkalis, and lead), there are many others that people might not think so much about.
Examples of Hazardous Substances
Many cleaning chemicals can cause both short and long-term health problems. Accidentally inhaling acetones – found in paint thinners and removers, detergents, and polishes – can irritate the nose and throat. They can also irritate the skin and cause dermatitis. At high concentrations, they can harm the nervous system, cause headaches, nausea, dizziness, and even unconsciousness. Caustic soda – found in drain and oven cleaners – causes severe burns, blistering and swelling, and can result in permanent scarring. If it comes into contact with eyes it can cause permanent damage. Accidental ingestion can burn the mouth, throat and stomach, and induce nausea, vomiting, and potentially even death. Bleach – found in many household cleaners – is corrosive to the skin, lungs, and eyes. It can cause chemical burns, and increases asthma and allergy symptoms.
Cleaning chemicals are just one kind of hazardous substance that people may unwittingly be exposed to at work, there are many others. For example, adhesives can contain many different chemicals, including acetone, which can cause skin irritation and be dangerous when inhaled. MDF, made up of very small particulates of wood, is harmful to the lungs. Paints can contain solvents or volatile organic compounds (VOCs). When solvents are inhaled they can be absorbed into the bloodstream and cause headaches and dizziness. Recent research has shown that long-term exposure can also cause a condition called ‘painter’s dementia’. When VOCs are inhaled they can irritate the eyes, nose and throat. Concrete, which when wet has an alkaline pH one billion times higher than skin, can cause severe burns, dermatitis and dry skin. Even natural substances, such as flour, can cause coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath and, after long-term exposure, asthma.
Reducing Risks from Hazardous Substances
While all of these substances can harm health, if used properly they don’t have to. In order to ensure that companies are aware of the hazardous substances their workers are exposed to, and the levels of that exposure, companies are required to carry out a COSHH risk assessment. Based on this, companies must decide what control measures they will implement to minimise risks. This can include looking into whether there are safer forms of certain products, reducing the amount of workers who may be exposed, and providing personal protective equipment and proper training.
The COSHH risk assessment and your plan for control measures must be done by a competent person with the necessary expertise. They must make sure nothing is missed, and control measures are adequate. While products that are ‘dangerous for supply’ will have a label showing hazard classification symbols, and suppliers are required by law to provide you with a safety data sheet outlining the risks associated with a particular substance and the personal protective equipment required, these can be difficult to understand. In addition, knowing when substitutions of one substance for another can be made requires a detailed knowledge of the industry.
Getting Help with COSHH
If you need advice on COSHH risk assessments, Amalgamate can help. We can review your hazardous substances for you, produce a COSHH register, and undertake COSHH assessments on your behalf. We can also provide guidance on what control measures you need to put in place and how to maintain them. Contact us on 0141 244 0181, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.