In the UK 2012-13, there were around 13,000 deaths from occupational lung disease and cancer believed to be caused by exposure to chemicals and dust at work. At the same time, 2 million people were suffering from an illness they believed had been caused or made worse by their working environments.
Shocking though these statistics are, they are only the tip of the iceberg when considering the numbers of people exposed to hazardous substances in their working lives. With a growing awareness of health and safety and adherence to the laws on hazardous substances, the number of workplace illnesses and deaths can be lowered.
Effects on People
A hazardous substance is any chemical or biological material that can cause harm to people or the environment.
This includes substances that can cause immediate damage (e.g. corrosive acids) and substances that cause a long-term effect, often made worse with prolonged exposure (e.g. asbestos). Common types of illnesses caused by exposure to hazardous substances include:
- Lung diseases such as asthma
- Skin complaints
- Eye damage
Many of these illnesses are easily avoidable. The Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations 2002 (COSHH) set out clear instructions for employers to follow to ensure their workers are protected from the harmful effects of hazardous substances in the workplace. Two of the steps are elimination (does the process requiring or producing the hazardous substance need to take place at all?) and substitution (can the hazardous substance be replaced by something less harmful?). In many cases, there was no real need for the worker to be exposed to the materials that made them ill at all.
Among many health complications, asbestos exposure can cause mesothelioma, a fatal lung disease. 2595 people died from it in the UK in 2016 and thousands of deaths are reported every year. The majority of these cases were for people who had come into contact with asbestos as part of their work. In one sad case, a lady died from mesothelioma due to the effects of washing her husband's work overalls decades before, as he had been working with asbestos.
Since asbestos is widely present in buildings constructed before it was banned in 2000, it's important that staff are well aware of the dangers of this hazardous substance.
For hazardous substances that can cause immediate harm such as fumes or acids, the ways to protect workers from harm are often very straightforward. Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) is usually the most visible but this is actually the last line of defence against exposure. Ideally it should be used in conjunction with other, more effective control measures that limit the exposure, such as physical barriers or automation for dangerous tasks. It is also important to make sure that all staff are trained in the handling of the hazardous materials so that they can follow all safety guidelines accurately.
There can be no denying the importance of controlling hazardous substances appropriately and protecting workers, their families and the general public from their harmful effects.
Effects on the Environment
All businesses produce hazardous waste. Batteries, cleaning products and used mobile phones can all fall under this classification. When this is disposed of incorrectly, it can have a terrible effect on the environment, polluting waters and killing wildlife. Businesses that are reviewing their approach to hazardous materials should take potential environmental hazards into account as well as the potential harm to humans.
A Middlesex company, Regal Rank Ltd, was fined over £2500 for sending hazardous waste to a site that didn't have the right qualifications to accept it. As it was the company's responsibility to ensure their hazardous waste was disposed of properly, they were the ones prosecuted for the incident.
Complying with Hazardous Substances Legislation
Making sure your business meets all of its responsibilities under COSHH and other hazardous substances legislation doesn't need to be difficult or complicated. Many of the requirements, such as assessing the risk of the substances and who might need control measures to protect them, are largely common sense.
However, by following them and keeping their staff safe, organisations can reap the benefits. They are protected from the financial loss that comes from prosecution or bad publicity and, most importantly, their workers are safe from harm – either immediately, through avoiding accidents involving hazardous substances, or years and decades down the line. Environmental concerns are also increasingly important to consumers, with more and more customers looking at a company's environmental credentials when deciding where to buy their products and services.