Handling hazardous substances

A hazardous substance is an item which has the potential to cause harm. These substances include:

  • chemicals
  • dust
  • fumes
  • waste products.

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
  • civil action.


The Control of Substances Hazardous to Health (COSHH) Regulations 1999 provides help to protect people in the workplace against health risks from hazardous substances that are used at work.

COSHH lays down a sensible, step-by-step approach to the necessary precautions and is therefore a useful tool for 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 that are hazardous only because they are:

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

Further guidance is available on the COSHH Essentials website.