The Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations 2002 (COSHH) places responsibilities on employers to control the storage and use of substances that present a hazard to health.
Hazardous substances are used within a wide range of industries such as agriculture, beauty and engineering, and in each instance, the COSHH regulations must be adhered to. Such substances include:
- products that contain chemicals
- vapours and mists
- biological agents, i.e. germs
- germs which cause diseases
- germs which are used in laboratories
Lead, asbestos and radioactive substances are not covered by COSHH, each having their own regulations.
Under COSHH, employers are also required to provide information to their employees about the hazards, risks and control measures present in their workplace, and to provide relevant training.
The penalties for COSHH non compliance include prosecution and fines which could amount to thousands of pounds. In certain serious cases, for instance, where an individual died as a result of COSHH non compliance, the responsible persons may face imprisonment.
Putting COSHH procedures in place
Your first step should be to consider how COSHH affects your workplace or, where you are responsible for more than one site, workplaces.
What hazardous substances are used or produced in your workplace? Check the COSHH list of hazardous substances above for an idea of what to include.
How could harm be caused by these substances? Could a substance cause irritation, for instance, or is it unsafe to breathe in the fumes from a particular substance? What would happen if someone did breathe in fumes?
Consider all workplace processes that involve hazardous substances and all areas of your workplace.
Your starting point should be an overall picture of the potential risks in your workplace before you carry out a COSHH assessment.
How to carry out a COSHH assessment
A COSHH assessment will identify:
- hazardous substances
- processes and activities involving hazardous substances
- risk of exposure to hazardous substances
- how those hazardous substances may cause ill-health or injury (this information can often be found on the data sheet for a substance)
- any concerns regarding hazardous substances, both yours and those of your employees
The best way to carry out a COSHH assessment is to walk around your workplace, taking note of all of the issues mentioned above.
Where you have more than 5 employees, you are legally required to keep a record of any COSHH assessments, for your own reference, to inform your employees and if required for the purposes of the Health and Safety Executive (HSE).
To carry out a COSHH assessment, it is not necessary to have any relevant qualification, however, you must be accepted as a suitably competent person, with the corresponding knowledge, skills and experience.
Decide on the required precautions
Having carried out the COSHH assessment, you should next consider any precautions and controls that could be put in place to control the risk of exposure to a hazardous substance.
It may be that you involve employees who are involved with the hazardous substances or take part in the processes that use the hazardous substances for their specialist insight and concerns.
Precautions could include:
- Eliminating the hazardous substance or the process that requires the use or production of the substance
- Substituting the hazardous substance for another substance which is less hazardous
- Substituting the process involving the hazardous substance for another process which doesn’t involve the substance
- Modifying the process to reduce the risk of exposure
- Enclosing the process in a sealed container or suchlike
- Automating the process to reduce the level of human interaction and therefore lessen the risk of exposure
- Using personal protective equipment such as a helmet, goggles or overalls
Once the COSHH precautions are in place, it will be necessary to ensure they are maintained.
Firstly, procedures should be written up for each COSHH related process and precaution and made available to all related employees. Where necessary, training may be offered to employees to ensure they are working correctly and safely.
Secondly, a level of supervision and overseeing may be required to ensure that the precautions and the related procedures are adhered to.
Monitoring is a way to check whether the COSHH precautions put in place are effective in controlling the risk of exposure and should start with a walk through your workplace.
Monitoring may not always be needed, especially where there is a high level of supervision, but it could detect air contamination or indicators of employee exposure such as repeated illness.
Where your employees are exposed to hazardous substances which may lead to the development of a specific disease, you must put a process in place to monitor their health on a regular basis.
This process should be carried out by an occupational health professional or a GP who is competent in occupational health.
Although each employee’s medical record is private, the health professional involved may use employee results to arrive at a trend regarding a hazardous substance or process involving such a substance. An example of this is where several employees who regularly come into contact with a particular hazardous substance all develop respiratory problems.
Such trends should inform the employer on whether a substance or process is creating a health problem in the workplace and alert them to changes that must be made.
Prepare for COSHH related accidents and emergency situations
Where an accident or emergency situation occurs, there should already be a procedure in place.
For instance, where a hazardous substance is leaked from a containment area, your procedure should inform employees what to do (evacuate and lock down certain areas of the site), give instructions on the involvement of the emergency services (which emergency services to contact and who will contact them) and contain information on the substance and process that will help the emergency services in dealing with the leak.
Inform and train employees
All employees who work with hazardous substances should be provided with the relevant training and information to ensure both their and everyone else’s safety.
This information and training should include:
- the risks involved, including how the hazardous substance could be harmful
- exposure limits
- the outcome of any exposure monitoring carried out, i.e. results and changes made
- health surveillance trends
- the procedure in the case of an accident or emergency
- substance data sheets
Does COSHH apply to the self-employed?
Where you are self-employed, have employees and use hazardous substances, COSHH will apply to you.
Where you don’t have employees but convey hazardous substances to premises that are not your own, COSHH applies to you with the exception of monitoring and health surveillance.
How often must COSHH assessments be reviewed?
COSHH assessments should be reviewed on a regular basis. What ‘regular’ means will vary depending on the work and industry involved, the likelihood of change in the workplace and the level of risk identified by the employer.
Where results from monitoring, supervision or health surveillance highlight a problem in the workplace or a process is altered, the relevant COSHH assessment should be reviewed immediately.
Why take legal advice?
With the maximum penalties for COSHH non compliance standing at fines amounting to thousands of pounds and possible imprisonment, it is in any employer’s best interests to be fully informed on their legal standing in regard to hazardous substances in their workplace.
Take specialist legal advice to ensure that both you and your employees are safeguarded now and in the future.