FAQs about COSHH

# COSHH: does it apply to my business?

According to figures from the EU-OSHA (European Agency for Safety and Health at Work), 17% of workers in the EU are exposed to chemical products or substances for at least a quarter of their time at work, and 15% report breathing in smoke, fumes, powder, or dust at work.

You don't have to be involved in producing dangerous chemicals for exposure to hazardous substances to be a risk. Most organisations today use substances that could cause harm to workers. 

Whilst health & safety specialists are well-versed in COSHH (Control of Substances Hazardous to Health), it is also essential for management - who are ultimately accountable - to have a working knowledge of the regulation. 

To this end, we've consulted some expert sources to put together a guide that answers some FAQs about COSHH.

#What is COSHH? 

Some hazardous substances - such as asbestos or polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) - are now banned or strictly controlled. However, as other potentially harmful substances are still widely used, the COSHH regulations are in place to ensure that the risks associated with them are appropriately managed. Substances can take different forms: from chemicals, fumes, dust, mist and vapour, to nanoparticles, gases, fibres and bacteria. Exposure to these substances might be through inhalation, skin contact or swallowing, or even because of chemicals being transferred from a worker's hands to their mouth or eyes after handling a hazardous substance. Caustic fluid splashes have been known to cause permanent damage to eyesight. Under COSHH, it is an employer's responsibility to prevent, reduce or control exposure to hazardous substances to protect their workers from ill-health.

#Who is important for?

COSHH should be a core health & safety pillar in any workplace, regardless of industry or size, since almost every business uses hazardous substances - even if only cleaning products! Therefore, any employer must take steps to monitor and manage risks, implement control measures and minimise exposure to hazardous substances. 

# Why is it important?

Compliance with COSHH is essential on many levels. As an employer, breaching these regulations is a crime that could result in prosecution and puts your employees at risk of harm and ill health. 

The health problems that can be caused by working with dangerous substances range from mild eye and skin irritation to severe effects, such as congenital disabilities, lung disease and skin cancer.  Effects can be acute or long term, and some substances can have a cumulative effect. Some dangerous substances also pose an immediate danger to health, for example, through poisoning, suffocation, or, with flammable substances, the risk of fire or explosion.

# How do I know which substances fall under COSHH?

Any substances with the potential to cause harm are hazardous and fall within the remit of COSHH, except for lead, asbestos and radioactive elements, which are governed by specific regulations.

Hazardous products are labelled with the relevant COSHH symbols. There are nine symbols in total [see chart], and they are universally understood in countries worldwide.

# How do we make sure our company is COSHH compliant? 

The first step to compliance is conducting a COSHH assessment to identify any hazardous substances in your workplace. However, this isn't as easy as opening a cupboard, consulting the labels, and drawing up a list. You need to walk around the workplace to identify hazards. These aren't just limited to products that workers use, such as paint and solvents. They also include processes that produce potentially hazardous substances. Examples might be fumes from welding or soldering, the mist from metalworking, dust from quarrying or gases from silage.

The next step is to act. Implement control measures to prevent workers from being exposed to these risks. The hierarchy of controls [see diagram] comes into play here. It is important not to forget substitution; this is often overlooked in favour of controls lower down in the hierarchy, such as PPE, but is the best way of managing COSHH risks. Colour coding/grading substances according to the level of risk they present is helpful here. For example, you may use 'green'- substances that pose no risk. 'Amber' to denote a mild effect such as for a solvent that causes light-headedness on inhalation. 'Red' indicates a more severe effect, such as corrosive substances that could burn the skin or damage eyes. The aim would be to replace 'red' products with those classified as 'amber, or, even better, 'green'. 

# Do everyday cleaning products fall under COSHH? 

Absolutely. Although COSHH is often associated with large volumes of industrial chemicals, it also covers small amounts used every day. Cleaning products can easily become hidden hazards as people can be complacent about their risk due to using them in their own homes. Most people do not link a spray of window cleaner or a toilet cleaner with the term 'hazardous substance'. However, cleaning products may be corrosive, with the potential to cause skin burns and eye damage, and contact with many cleaning chemicals can lead to skin soreness and itching, rashes, and blistering.

# Where does WELS come into it? 

WELs (Workplace Exposure Limits) are occupational exposure limits set to help protect workers' health. WELs are concentrations of hazardous substances in the air, averaged over a specified period. Two time periods are generally used: long-term (8 hours) and short-term (15 minutes). Short-term exposure limits (STELs) are set to help prevent effects such as eye irritation, which may occur following exposure for a few minutes. 

Substances that have been assigned a WEL are subject to the requirements of COSHH. Under COSHH, control is defined as adequate only if the principles of good control practice are applied, and no WEL is exceeded.

The absence of a substance from the list of WELs does not indicate that it is safe. For these substances, exposure should be controlled to a level where nearly all the working population could be exposed, day after day at work, without any adverse effects on health.

# Do COSHH requirements change? 

Yes - although the regulation that came into force in 2002 remains the same, the Approved Code of Practice and supporting materials have been updated several times to take account of regulatory changes such as REACH and new scientific evidence in terms of safe exposure thresholds. For example, new or revised workplace exposure limits for 13 substances were introduced in January last year to bring EH40/2005' Workplace exposure limits' in line with the Carcinogens and Mutagens Directive (EU) 2017/2398). 

For more information…

The HSE website is the best point of reference for up-to-date, comprehensive information and advice about COSHH. Here companies can access practical guidance on what the law requires and how to complete COSHH assessments

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