In previous editions, Neil Hughes-Hutchings, Senior Health & Safety Consultant at Napthens Health & Safety has covered topics such as lone working and the procurement of contractors, this month Neil is going to be talking about hazardous substances; what you can do to control them and what your legal duties are .
Hello, I am Neil Hughes-Hutchings senior Health and Safety Consultant at Napthens Health and Safety. I am back for another edition of my podcast. If you are unfamiliar with the format of my podcasts and blogs then as a reminder, their purpose is to act as a starter topic for further discussion within your organisation, to assist with improving compliance, and to allow workers to understand the specific topic being discussed. In previous editions I have covered topics such as lone working and the procurement of contractors, but this month I am going to be talking about hazardous substances; what you can do to control them and what your legal duties are.
Hazardous substances can be found in almost every workplace, and this would include operators of services in the care sector and care homeowners. Hazardous substances range from industrial chemicals where one drop could kill, through to dusts and gases where ill-health may only occur after months of exposure.
So, let me start by answering the question, what are substances hazardous to health?
A substance can cause harm when it is able to enter the body and reach an organ where it can affect it. This can be by skin contact, passing through the skin into the bloodstream, also known as absorption, inhalation as a gas, vapour or dust, or by ingestion or injection.
Examples of hazardous substances include pure chemicals, chemical preparations, toxic wastes and biological materials. Now that we understand what a substance hazardous to health is and how they could cause harm or ill-health we need to know about the health effects they can cause. These can include asthma, skin irritation and dermatitis, infection, cancer and loss of consciousness, to name but a few. The health effects caused can be either acute or chronic. A health effect that is immediate or short term, such as corrosive burns from acids, are acute health effects.
On the flip side of this, those health effects which are delayed or developed over long periods of time, such as chemicals that induce cancer, are referred to as chronic health effects. It is therefore essential to have a risk management plan in place to eliminate or control exposure to hazardous substances. As with all risks, we can use the hierarchy of control to work through how we are going to control exposure. Right at the top sits elimination. Can we prevent exposure to hazardous substances? This has to be considered first. Where this is not reasonably practicable then exposure must be adequately controlled. Next, we need to consider if we can replace our hazardous substances with non-hazardous substances. Where it is not possible, can we substitute our hazardous substances with less harmful substances?
Where it is not possible to prevent exposure or substitute with less harmful substances then you will need to have effective control measures in place to ensure exposure is below any workplace exposure level published by the Health and Safety Executive. Specifically for carcinogens, mutagens and asthmagens you must ensure exposure is reduced as far below the Workplace Exposure Level as is reasonably practicable.
Where required, you must implement a health surveillance and exposure monitoring programme for those who are at risk. You must also take into account those who may be more susceptible to ill-health, and ensure they are considered in your control measures.
Your general legal duties are set out in The Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974. The process of risk assessment and recording significant findings is a legal requirement under regulation 3 of The Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999.
For higher risk activities additional and more prescriptive legislation usually applies. This is the case with hazardous substances. Activities relating to substances that may be hazardous to health are covered by specific legislation – The Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations 2002. This is commonly referred to as COSHH.
An overall management system for hazardous substances must include the following:
• Policies and procedures for the control of hazardous substances that are clearly communicated to your workforce
• Ensure access to an appropriate level of competent advice on the management of hazardous substances. Where necessary, you may need additional advice from occupational health advisors
• Have a process in place which ensures COSHH assessments are undertaken prior to working with hazardous substances and which ensures they are reviewed regularly and updated
• Control the purchasing of hazardous substances. You can assess the level of risk prior to purchase, and you can properly consider substitutions for less hazardous alternatives
• Implement the control measures identified from your COSHH assessments
• Implement maintenance programmes for engineering controls such as for local exhaust ventilation systems
• Ensure all employees are aware of the risks posed by exposure to the hazardous substances and that they receive suitable information, instruction and training to implement safe systems of work
• Have a plan in place for emergencies, such as leak, spillage, fire or first aid requirements that may be required in the immediate aftermath of exposure to a hazardous substance
• Develop a system for maintaining all your records for hazardous substances in accordance with the statutory requirements
We can look to case law for examples of organisations that have been fined. Workers at a company premises were exposed to hazardous chemicals over a four-year period leading to ‘allergic contact dermatitis’. The company was fined £30,000 for breaching the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974, and £10,000 for six separate breaches of the COSHH regulations for not making adequate risk assessments, for not preventing or controlling exposure of employees to chemicals, and for not providing any ‘health surveillance’ of employees at risk.
Lastly, and more recently a firm was found guilty of breaching the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations 2002 when they failed to ensure their extraction system was working efficiently. It was also found that the ventilation system had not been subjected to a robust cleaning regime. As a result, workers were exposed to high levels of wood dust.
Once again, I thank you for tuning in and listening to my podcast. I will be back in a couple of months so until then, bye for now.