The History and Importance of COSHH

December 30, 2015
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As an employer of anyone who could come into contact with hazardous substances of any kind, you’re required by law to perform certain duties designed to reduce the potential risk to your employees’ health.

If you or one of your employees is found to be in breach of the regulations, it’s a crime that could land you a fine of up to £400. Quite apart from the health and safety implications of not complying, and the fact that these important regulations are designed to save lives, it’s legislation that you can’t ignore.


What is COSHH?

COSHH is an acronym for the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations (2002), which require employers to reduce the risks posed by hazardous substances in the workplace. By minimising exposure to hazardous substances (such as chemicals, dusts, gases, and vapours), you prevent employees from suffering work-related ill-health, such as occupational dermatitis and asthma.


Why was COSHH introduced?

COSHH is part of a general trend towards improving and legislating for workplace safety, but it was largely a formalisation of safety measures employers were commonly already taking, as required by the Factories Act 1961 and the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974.

The COSHH regulations have been an important factor in improving safety standards, raising awareness of the risks and giving employers an incentive to ensure that their workplace is as safe as possible.

The Control of Substances Hazardous to Health (COSHH) Regulations 2002 grew from an earlier piece of legislation, originally introduced in 1988, designed to place more focus on the dangers associated with hazardous substances and the measures employers should be taking to reduce risk.

The more recent legislation combines amendments of earlier regulations with the implementation of a number of European Union directives. In the quarter of a century since the regulations were brought in, occupational health has steadily improved; statistics from the Health and Safety Executive show that work-related cases of ill health have gradually reduced, though there’s still room for improvement.


What substances are covered?

The legislation covers a range of hazardous substances, in any form, including fumes, pastes and dusts.

Technically speaking, a “hazardous substance” is anything classed under the Chemicals Hazard Information and Packaging Regulations as corrosive or an irritant, harmful, toxic or very toxic. It’s also anything that’s been given an exposure limit, that’s carcinogenic, mutagenic or toxic to reproduction.

Chemicals and chemical products, biological agents, nanotechnology and germs that cause diseases are all included, as is anything that has any hazard symbol on the packaging or that might in any other way cause harm to health.

There are some exceptions; for example, asbestos, lead and coal dust are covered by separate legislation.


What measures do the regulations require?

To keep employees safe, the COSHH regulations require employers to take certain steps to ensure that exposure to hazardous substances is kept to a minimum, and that risk is reduced and monitored where exposure is unavoidable. In brief, the employer’s duties include:

Risk assessment

The legislation requires employers to carry out a risk assessment in order to identify potentially hazardous substances to which their employees may be exposed. In practice, this means systematically looking around the workplace, noting down hazardous substances and jobs that may lead to exposure to them. Accident logbooks should be reviewed for any areas of concern that employees may already have reported.

Prevention, control and/or monitoring of exposure

For each issue highlighted in the risk assessment, the next step is to determine what health risks they entail and whether alternative substances can be used that lessen or eliminate the risk of exposure.

The ideal situation is to prevent exposure by changing processes or by using the substance in a safer form, but where it does unavoidably occur, you’re required to control and monitor it. That means putting in place appropriate safety procedures and measures, such as totally or partially enclosing the area in which the substance is used, or ensuring proper ventilation.

Exposure must be routinely monitored – for example with air sampling pumps – with monitoring intervals depending on the type of substance.

Control measures

After appropriate control measures have been implemented, and safety equipment provided, they must be routinely maintained and tested to ensure that they are in good condition and continue to provide adequate protection.

Health surveillance

There are certain situations in which you’re required to monitor the health of employees who are exposed to hazardous substances, such as when they have a diagnosable disease or health symptoms that could be linked with exposure to a hazardous substance.

Health surveillance is also required when there’s a “reasonable likelihood” that an employee may become ill because of the job they do. There must be a valid monitoring technique for health symptoms related to the disease of threat, and it must be of minimal risk to the employee.

Health surveillance is also required with some specific substances when used in certain circumstances.

Training

Finally, it should be noted that it’s not just employers who have an obligation under COSHH regulations. For their own safety, employees are also duty-bound to ensure that they comply with COSHH, as they need to ensure that they follow safety measures correctly and report defective equipment.

As such, employees must have appropriate training and supervision to ensure that they understand the substances they could be coming into contact with, and know how to comply with COSHH stipulations. This also means that they should know how to deal with an accident or emergency should one arise.

The greater the awareness and proper adherence to COSHH, the higher the likelihood that there will be fewer workplace health issues. And when compliance and non-compliance could, in the long term, be the difference between life and death, it becomes abundantly clear how important this legislation really is.


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