Hazardous Substance Risks

What risks do Hazardous Substances present?
Hazardous Substances can cause short- and long-term health problems. They can cause serious ill health including cancers, dermatitis and asthma.

A cleaner splashing bleach on their skin could cause a burn or inflammation, which will have little long-term effect in most cases. However, a splash in the eye could cause permanent damage to their sight.

A joiner suffering years of exposure to wood dust could have long-term health problems – the dust could affect his lungs and cause health problems for the rest of his life.

There are legal obligations on employers to control exposure to Hazardous Substances to preserve the health of their employees.

Who is at risk from Hazardous Substances?

Anyone who works with or is exposed to hazardous substances is at risk. Those exposed to more hazardous substances for long periods of time are more at risk than those exposed for short periods or to less hazardous substances.

The aim should be to prevent exposure to hazardous substances. Where exposure cannot be avoided, then adequate controls should be put in place.

Examples of those who could be exposed to hazardous substances include:

  • cleaners – common-cleaning materials can cause localised burns and skin complaints
  • hairdressers – a number of hairdressing products can damage their skin
  • welders – dangerous fumes from welding can damage their lungs
  • bakery workers – flour and bakery dust can cause irritation of eyes and nose, skin problems and asthma
  • garage workers – paints, solvents, oils and grease, and exposure to exhaust fumes can all damage their health
  • healthcare staff – exposure to biological agents can cause infection.

In reality, the list is endless and most workers will be exposed to hazardous substances at some time.

Identify the risks from hazardous substances

The first step to managing harmful substances safely is to conduct a risk assessment.

All businesses have a legal responsibility under the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health (COSHH) Regulations 2002 to carry out risk assessments that are acted on and regularly reviewed. See our guide on managing the risks in your business.

It’s important to bear in mind that some people or environments may be more vulnerable or sensitive to particular substances than others, such as:

  • people with allergies or intolerances
  • disabled people or people with learning difficulties
  • sites near sources of water

First you will need to identify what substances in the workplace could be harmful. Remember to think about:

  • substances that have been supplied to you
  • substances produced by your work, including natural materials such as flour dust
  • final products and waste materials