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Pollution control - hazardous substances

Every year exposure to hazardous substances at work affects the health of many thousands of people. Common examples include:

  • lung disease (for example through working in dusty conditions)
  • skin irritation
  • dermatitis or skin cancer (for example from frequent contact with oils or corrosive liquids)
  • the development of other occupational cancers (for example from exposure to toxic fumes)
  • occupational asthma (for example from sensitisation to isocyanates in paints or adhesives).

The high costs of ill-health arise from a number of causes, including loss of earnings, loss of productivity, prosecution and civil action, among others.

The Control of Substances Hazardous to Health (COSHH) Regulations 1999

These provide a framework to help protect people in the workplace against health risks from hazardous substances. The substances may be used directly in the work (for example cleaning chemicals or chemical reagents) or may arise from the work (for example dust, fumes and waste products).

COSHH lays down a sensible, step-by-step approach to the necessary precautions and is therefore a useful tool for good management. The potential for identifiable cost-benefits (for example tighter control over the use and storage of materials), improved morale and industrial relations have been widely realised.

COSHH applies to virtually all substances hazardous to health. Exceptions include asbestos and lead (which have their own regulations) and substances which are hazardous only because they are:

  • radioactive
  • asphyxiants
  • used at high pressures or temperatures
  • have explosive or flammable properties.

Some definitions used in the regulations

  • Hazard - the potential to cause harm
  • Risk - the likelihood that it will cause harm in the actual circumstances of use.

The risk will depend on a number of factors, such as:

  • the hazard presented by the substance
  • how it is used
  • how exposure is controlled
  • the degree and extent of exposure.

Further guidance is available on the COSHH Essentials website.