The Basics of COSHH

COSHH is an abbreviation for Control Of Substances Hazardous to Health. Substances that are hazardous to our health have been around as long as mankind itself and although not all of them appear to be hazardous, many substances can cause risks to your health and safety if you don’t handle them properly.

What is covered under COSHH?

Infographic listing the types of substances COSHH covers as described in the text

Aside from the obvious substances like bleach or acid, you need to be careful of all the substances that COSHH covers. These include:

  • Chemicals and products containing chemicals – cleaning products and pesticides
  • Fumes – sulphur dioxide from petrol fumes
  • Dust – Textiles, paper particles, soil, coal etc.
  • Vapours – acetone (Nail varnish)
  • Mists – from neat oils or water based fluids
  • Nanotechnology – found in batteries, food products, anti-bacterial clothing, cosmetics etc.
  • Gases and asphyxiating gases – Carbon dioxide, Methane etc.
  • Biological agents (Germs) – bacteria, viruses, parasites
  • Germs that cause diseases or ones that are used in laboratories

How can these substances harm the user or others around them?

COSHH symbols for the 9 types of harm described in the textThere are many ways in which substances can harm people who are exposed to them and different routes they can enter the body. These exposure routes are by inhaling fume, dust, gas or mist; contact with skin; injection into the skin; and by ingesting. Since 2009 international symbols have been introduced to identify to those who use these products what specific harm will come to them if they are used incorrectly. These are:

  1. Environmental hazards – The contents could be an acute or chronic hazard to the environment.
  2. Toxic – The contents are toxic when swallowed, breathed in, absorbed through the skin. (e.g. Bleach or pesticides) This also includes very toxic substances which can cause significant harm or death if even a small amount enters the body (e.g. Hydrogen sulphide, chlorine or sodium cyanide)
  3. Gas under pressure – The container holds compressed, liquified, refrigerated liquified, or dissolved gas.
  4. Corrosive – The substance is both a physical hazard and health hazard. These are corrosive to both metal and skin (e.g bleach or drain cleaners).
  5. Explosive – The container holds a potentially unstable explosive substance.
  6. Flammable – The container holds a flammable liquid, gas, solid or an aerosol.
  7. Health hazard – The substance can irritate the eyes or skin irritation, inflammation or dermatitis.
  8. Oxidising – The container holds an oxidising gas, liquid or solid.
  9. Serious health hazard – indicates that the substance can be a breathing hazard or cause long-term health complications (e.g. carcinogens that come from diesel exhaust fumes and potentially cause cancer)

How can we manage these substances to reduce the risks they pose to people?

Flammable and environmental hazard symbolsThe best way is to risk assess these products. It is a legal requirement that any hazardous substance has a corresponding Manufacturer Safety Data Sheet provided by the manufacturer. These highlight the risks that these products pose to people who encounter them and from this information, sufficient control measures can be put into place to reduce the levels of exposure.

Before conducting a COSHH assessment think about the activities in your workplace that involve hazardous substances, how can these substances cause harm to the people exposed to them, and how can you reduce the risk of harm occurring? After these questions have been answered the simplest way to assess the substance is to walk around your workplace and consider the following questions:

Where is there potential for exposure to substances that might be hazardous to health?

In what way are the substances harmful to health?

What jobs or tasks lead to exposure?

Are there any areas of concern, e.g. any incidents from the Accident Book?

WA Management can aid in creating COSHH assessments for your business to ensure your employees are safe when handling substances that are potentially harmful to their health. For more information, please get in touch!

Written by Thomas Wheeler, SHEQ Trainee at WA Management.

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