Hazardous Substances in the Workplace

Hazardous substances are one of the most dangerous hazards to occupational health and employee safety. Learn about the common types of hazardous substances at work and how they should be handled.

For any employer, the health and safety of its employees and the public has to be at the top of the priorities list. Controlling hazardous substances in the workplace is one of the key elements of this. With an estimated 13,000 deaths each year in the UK attributed to past exposure at work (usually chemicals or dust), it’s impossible to overstate its importance.

What Kinds of Hazardous Substances are in the Workplace?

“Hazardous substances” is a term covering many products and materials. It refers to anything that can cause people health problems or damage to the environment. Both products used in work processes or the by-products of them can count as hazardous substances. Most companies produce some form of hazardous waste, which must be disposed of correctly.

Common hazardous substances in the workplace include:

– Chemicals like disinfectants, pesticides, and paint
– Fumes and dusts
– Biological agents

For packaged products, it’s possible to see which type of hazard a particular substance might be by looking for its warning symbol. Corrosive, flammable, oxidising and environmentally damaging products can be recognised this way, and many employees will find it beneficial to familiarise themselves with the meanings of each of these symbols

When identifying workplace hazards, it’s useful to consider the main entry pathways into the body for hazardous substances. They are inhalation (breathing the substance or its fumes in), absorption (coming into contact with the substance via the skin or eyes), ingestion (swallowing the substance) and injection (direct entry of the substance into the bloodstream). The risks of all of these can be minimised with effective control measures and employee protection.

Chemicals – Acids and pesticides are examples of chemicals used in particular industries, requiring specialist handling. However, all workplaces will have some form of chemical hazard present. Everyday cleaning products class as hazardous substances and must be properly stored and handled, with any employee using them receiving adequate protection.

Fumes and dusts – Many work processes produce fumes, from food preparation to painting to welding. Taken into the body through inhalation, they can cause respiratory diseases or, longer term, certain forms of cancer. Ventilation systems are one example of control measures that can minimise the risk of exposure.

There have been cases of employees of bakeries developing occupational asthma as a result of inhaling flour dust. In one case, a 51 year old man developed the condition over 15 years. He was able to continue in his job when he was moved to a less dusty area of the bakery, given appropriate Respiratory Protective Equipment (RPE) and medical treatment for his symptoms. Sadly, the effects of years of direct exposure cannot be reversed and it’s likely he will continue to suffer from respiratory ill health for the rest of his life. Two other workers at the same place developed it but luckily, their health issues were recognised earlier and they were able to receive better medical treatment.

Biological agents – Hospitals, labs and universities will all have access to biological hazards such as germs. Medical waste such as blood can also be highly hazardous and needs to be disposed of carefully.

Legionella, the bacteria that causes Legionnaires’ disease, can be present in any workplace and it’s important to ensure water safety standards are in place to avoid it.

Substances requiring specialist handling – Asbestos and radioactive material need to be handled in particular ways due to their potential to cause health damage.

How Should Workplaces Handle Hazardous Substances?

The Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations 2002 (COSHH) covers most of the hazardous substances in workplace. Under these regulations, employers must conduct a thorough risk assessment. All employees must be made aware of potential hazards and the relevant safety procedures.

When most people think of protecting workers against the effects of hazardous substances, they think of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) such as eyewear, gloves and hard hats. Although PPE is an important safety measure – and any PPE required for a job must be provided free of charge to all workers who need it – it’s the last line of defence against a hazardous substance, and there are steps employers can take before thinking about relying on clothing.

COSHH requires employers to prevent or reduce their staff’s exposure to hazardous substances.

Prevention – The best way to lessen the danger from a hazardous substance is to remove it entirely or remove the process that requires it. Automating the process also eliminates the need for workers to interact with the substance directly.

Reduction – When a process requiring a hazardous substance can’t be removed, it can sometimes be re-designed in a way that lessens the danger. Considering the substance’s properties can lead to the realisation that another, less hazardous product could do the same job.

Engineering controls (such as ventilation systems or creating a physical barrier between the worker and the potentially dangerous process) and administrative controls (such as training staff on vital safety information) can be very helpful. In one case, a welding company in Birmingham was served with an improvement notice to reduce its employees’ exposure to fumes. Some workers were facing up to eight hours of exposure a day to fumes that had been linked with COPD, asthma and chronic bronchitis. By fitting a local exhaust ventilation system (LEV), the company was able to reduce exposure and protect the welders’ health – as well as avoid prosecution.

With the use of hazardous substances forming an integral part of most workplaces, it’s very important that all workplace hazards are recognised and dealt with effectively.

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