"Hazardous substances" is a broad term covering many different products found in workplaces. It can be defined as any material, whether solid, liquid or gas, that is potentially harmful to people or the environment. Hazardous substances may be used in work processes or they may be by-products of them.
The primary piece of UK legislation dealing with protection from hazardous substances is the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations 2002 (COSHH). Lead, asbestos and radioactive materials are not specifically covered under COSHH because they have specialist requirements and as such have their own legislation. All of these would come under the umbrella term "hazardous substances".
Types of Hazardous Substances
Hazardous substances can be classified by which type of problem they can cause. This can often be seen from the label on their packaging. Since 2015, hazard warning pictograms have appeared on a white background with red edges. Staff training on recognising these and their meanings can be very helpful in identifying hazards. They include warnings for materials that are flammable, corrosive or toxic.
COSHH covers, among other substances:
- Chemicals and products containing chemicals
- Fumes, dust, vapours and mists, including those arising from work activities such as painting
The effects of these substances range from relatively mild, such as temporary skin irritation, through to potentially fatal. Some will be immediately harmful and others can cause symptoms many years in the future.
There are three main ways that people can come into contact with hazardous substances: by inhaling them, by ingesting them or by coming into skin contact with them.
Common Types of Hazardous Substances in Workplaces
Almost every organisation will have hazardous substances that their employees might encounter during their working day.
Cleaning products such as bleach or disinfectant class as potentially hazardous substances, as they can cause injury (such as skin or eye problems) or environmental hazards if they aren't properly disposed of. Paints, glues and solvents are hazardous substances too, and must be used with the greatest of care. The misuse of hazardous substances can have devastating consequences; in 2015 two brothers were killed when they were given highly flammable thinners to remove dried carpet tile adhesive from a floor they were working on. Unfortunately, these caught light and caused an explosive fire, killing the brothers and severely injuring a third worker. Their employer, Clearview Design and Construction Ltd, was prosecuted under the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 and the owner given an eight month jail sentence.
Many medical, agricultural or scientific workplaces will have other kinds of hazardous substances on-site. Examples of these are acids, heavy metals, pesticides and solvents. All of these substances need to be accounted for in their COSHH risk assessments and their workers suitably protected from the hazards.
With some processes, hazardous substances are by-products rather than ingredients. Proper ventilation systems can help protect workers against the effects of fumes and industrial dust. In the catering industry, for example, some substances in cooking fumes have been linked with an increased cancer risk, so it's vital that these effects are controlled.
Electrical equipment including laptops and mobile phones become "hazardous waste" when they are discarded, so they need to be disposed of by accredited waste management companies.
Other Hazardous Substances Legislation
As well as COSHH, there are other pieces of legislation that cover hazardous substances and their control and handling:
- DSEAR – Dangerous Substances and Explosive Atmospheres Regulations, 2002
This concerns all materials that can carry an explosion risk. Any substance that can contribute to an explosive atmosphere is covered under DSEAR.
- Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012
With thousands of people dying from the effects of asbestos exposure every year, making sure asbestos is identified and dealt with appropriately is still as important as ever.
- Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation & Restriction of Chemicals (REACH)
REACH is a European Union regulation that affects substances that are manufactured or imported into the EU in quantities of one tonne or more each year.
All companies no matter what their industry deal with hazardous substances of some kind. It's important that these are recognised and any potentially harmful effects to workers, the public and the environment are minimised. With the correct control measures, in many cases the risk from hazardous substances can be eliminated altogether.