This article lays out why we need to review our approach to the management of risks from hazardous substances.
Organisations in the UK are required by law to make a suitable and sufficient assessment of the risks to the health and safety of people at work.
Under the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health (COSHH) Regulations this obligation specifically includes the risk assessment of hazardous substances. Organisations must be sure that all hazardous substances to which people are exposed are considered, and that suitable measures are in place to eliminate hazardous substances where practical, and otherwise to reduce and manage the risk. However, while the need for safety risk assessments is widely understood, hazardous substance assessments (also known as COSHH assessments) are less familiar to many.
Here are 4 reasons why we need to review our approach to the management of risks from hazardous substances.
1. Poor health kills more people than poor safety
We have made enormous strides in the past 45 years to reduce the number of people killed in accidents at work. While any deaths remain unacceptable, that fatalities at work dropped again in 2020 is evidence that organisations are getting better at managing safety. However, compared to 111 workers and 92 members of the public killed in accidents at work in 2019/20 , the HSE estimates that around 12,000 people die each year from occupational lung diseases alone.
Many more suffer harm to their health because of work, with approximately 1.6 million workers suffering from work-related ill health at any point. Reducing the exposure of your workforce to hazardous substances is a key step in reducing that harm.
2. A safety data sheet (SDS) is not a risk assessment
A common mistake in organisations is to collect the safety data sheets (SDS) for any purchased chemicals in a folder, and to label it “COSHH risk assessments.”
A SDS is not a risk assessment. It provides details about the substance, including its hazardous effects, first-aid measures, PPE requirements and fire-fighting advice, but you need to consider how to apply this information in your workplace. If you use one substance for two very different tasks, you will need two risk assessments.
For example, using the same paint in one task with a roller, and in another task with a sprayer, presents different risks and requires different methods of control. The second problem with this approach is that not all substances that could harm health have a SDS. Diesel fumes, silica dust and wood dust are all by-products of other processes. They don’t arrive in a bottle with a hazard label on them – but they are still hazardous substances which need to be managed to limit exposure.
3. Prosecutions of employers who harm people’s health are increasing
In previous years, the highest penalties for health and safety offences have been cases where people have been killed, or have suffered life-changing injuries. The £5 million fines for Merlin Entertainments in relation to the injuries suffered by five guests on a ride in 2015 were well publicised. Since then, six figure fines have become common for smaller organisations following other accidents.
However, prosecutions and fines of organisations which don’t protect the health of their staff are increasing. In 2020 a car dealership was fined £120,000 after an employee developed occupational asthma. The worker had been exposed over a 6-year period to isocyanates in spray paint.
But in case you think it’s ok to expose people to hazardous substances, as long as you don’t do it too often, a more recent case highlights the dangers of even a single exposure. Metalworking fluids (also known as suds, coolants or soap) provide cooling and lubrication during the machining and shaping of metals. They are harmful to health, both by inhaling metalworking mists generated by some processes, and when the fluids contact your skin, especially through cuts or when ingested.
A worker at an engineering company specialising in high performance automotive transmission systems was cleaning a grinding machine when metalworking fluid splashed on their face and upper body. The employee suffered a painful burning sensation, with inflamed and oozing skin. The diagnosis was allergic contact dermatitis, a permanent allergy which means that in the future, even very small quantities of metalworking fluid will lead to a serious reaction. As a result, the victim can no longer work in this industry. In June 2021, the employer was fined £100,000 for failing to have controls in place to protect the health of the worker .
In both cases, the controls needed are well understood and documented. But without a system to record hazardous substances in use, and to communicate the controls needed, organisations leave their employees open to harm - and the company open to prosecution.
4. The regulator has made health a priority
The HSE have made health a clear priority, with its ‘Go home healthy’ campaign, and specific programs of inspection to tackle industries with known health hazards.
When the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) categorised welding fumes as a human carcinogen, the HSE made it clear (2019) that there would be ‘a strengthening of HSE's enforcement expectation for all welding fume.’ The previous reliance on general ventilation as a control was no longer considered adequate. Any organisations with welding activities should have reviewed their existing risk assessments to make sure their controls matched the new risk level. If your employees carry out any welding, check that your risk assessments have been reviewed since 2019.
The HSE did not reduce its efforts to prioritise occupational health during the COVID pandemic. In October 2020 the HSE focused a month of inspections on respiratory risks and occupational lung disease in the construction sector, alongside checks that businesses were protecting workers from COVID. HSE inspectors discovered many workers relying on cloth and disposable face coverings to protect from silica and wood dusts, pointing out that these are not the same as face-fit tested respiratory protection.
The HSE have advised that during 2021 there will be more inspections of businesses doing metal fabrication, to check that suitable controls are in place. You can be sure that the recent prosecution for a single exposure to metalworking fluids will be on their minds. You can be prosecuted before someone is harmed if the regulator has evidence that you have failed to adequately assess and control risks. Can you show that you have assessed the risks to health, decided on the most appropriate controls, and communicated those controls to everyone who needs to know?