Health and Safety

Hazardous substances – control and safe working

working with hazardous substances
Written by admin

Hazardous substances can be present in many forms in the workplace, and there are a surprising number of them. As a small business owner, it is crucial that you know how to identify them, and understand what your obligations are in relation to their use and handling. There are a set of regulations called COSHH (the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health) that you need to familiarise yourself with. These regulations apply whether you are an employer or self-employed. First of all, let us look at the substances themselves.

What are hazardous substances?

Many materials can be classed as hazardous substances, even commonly encountered materials such as the bleach and cleaning fluids routinely used in our homes. Encounters with liquids, gases, solids, fumes, mists can all be hazardous to health. Even dust, in sufficient concentrations is considered a hazardous substance. The effects of contact with hazardous substances can vary from minor skin irritations to severe damage to health and wellbeing.

As far as the COSHH legislation is concerned, a hazardous substance is something defined as irritant, harmful, corrosive, toxic or very toxic. Biological matter and substantial concentrations of dust also fall under these categories.

Who is at risk from hazardous substances?

Everyone who comes into contact is classed as at risk. The longer the contact and the more hazardous the substance, the higher the risk. As with all areas of health and safety, it is unwise to ignore any risks that may be present.

For example, a bakery may seem a pretty safe place, but flour dust in the atmosphere can lead to skin problems and breathing difficulties. A hairdresser handles many products containing harsh chemicals. Dyes, and permanent wave and even shampooing products can cause skin irritation. Garage mechanics encounter oils, grease, solvents and automotive exhaust fumes, all of which can harm their health. Even a carpenter is at risk from wood dust and use of varnishes and paints.

What are the COSHH regulations?

COSHH regulations came into force in 2002. They state that prevention of exposure to hazardous substances is best. It is however recognised that exposure can’t always be totally avoided. In the case of unavoidable contact, adequate controls need to be established.

The regulations are equally applicable to employers and the self-employed. Further information relating to the subject of COSHH and its application to different industry sectors are available on the Heath and Safety Executive website.

What do the COSHH regulations mean to me?

It is essential for any small business owner to identify hazardous substances in use in their operation. This doesn’t just mean substances used on your own premises – a painter and decorator who takes paint and thinners onto a customer site is potentially exposing themselves and the customer to hazardous materials. Health and Safety Data Sheets contain information on many hazardous substances. However, not all materials are covered by these documents.

In order to identify all the risks associated with the substances in your workplace, it is important to carry out a specific type of risk assessment. This is called a COSHH assessment. By law, this assessment needs to be ‘suitable and sufficient’. If you don’t already have in-house expertise in this area, it’s good idea to bring in professional help. Thorough assessments combined with robust record-keeping are essential. They will underpin your control process for working with hazardous substances, and keep you and your employees safe.


For more information on COSHH regulations and assessments, email us at or complete the form below.



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