Control of Substances Hazardous to Health

If you work with substances that are potentially harmful to human health, your employer must abide by the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations (COSHH) to reduce and manage the risk of illness or injury.

If hazardous substances are handled in an unsafe manner, they may cause a number of short-term and long-term health problems. The COSHH places legal obligations on employers to control exposure to hazardous substances, in order to minimise the risk of health problems developing.

If your employer breaches the COSHH Regulations, or is otherwise negligent, such as causing injury as the result of inadequate personal protective equipment (PPE), you are like be eligible to make a claim for any injuries that arise from the negligence.

What is defined as a substance hazardous to health?

A hazardous substance is any material that could compromise human health in some way. This could include:

  • Toxic substances used directly in the workplace, such as cleaning chemicals
  • Substances that may arise while working, such as smoke, gas, dust or fumes.

How do workers come into contact with hazardous substances?

Workers may come into contact with hazardous substances through handling, inhaling or ingesting them. Contact with hazardous substances can cause a wide range of health problems.

Examples of employees coming into contact with hazardous substances, and the health conditions they might cause, include:

  • Cleaners using harmful cleaning products without protective gloves
  • Lung disease caused by repeated exposure to dust and fibres such as asbestos
  • Skin or eye irritation from exposure to corrosive chemicals
  • Lung infections caused by inhaling smoke or fumes
  • Certain types of cancer brought on by long-term exposure to carcinogenic substances.

COSHH – duties places on employers

The COSHH states that employers have a legal duty to implement health and safety practices around hazardous substances. These duties are put in place to prevent exposure to hazardous substances and the resulting health impacts on employees.

To abide by COSHH Regulations, employers must:

  • Identify hazardous substances in the workplace
  • Assess the risk of using a hazardous substance in a particular situation
  • Work out what safety precautions are needed
  • Train employees on the proper safety measures
  • Remove the risk, or reduce to insignificant levels for significant risks.

COSHH applies to a wide range of industries, protecting against a wide range of risks, from injuries on construction sites to health and safety breaches in offices and public buildings.

Ways employers can prevent exposure to hazardous substances

There are a number of practices or systems that employers can put into place in order to limit exposure to hazardous substances in the workplace. For example:

  • Changing work practices so that a hazardous substance is no longer required
  • Enclosing the area where the hazardous substance is used so that it cannot contaminate other areas
  • Providing breathing apparatus, masks or other protective equipment to prevent the substance coming into contact with employees, in compliance with the PPE at Work Regulations 1992.

What you should do if you come into contact with a hazardous substance

If you have ingested, inhaled or handled a hazardous substance at work and this had led to health problems, you may be entitled to make a compensation claim against your employer.

Your solicitor would need to be able to prove that your employer failed to take reasonable precautions of your safety. If your employer is found to have failed to observe COSHH regulations, and you were injured as a result, you are likely to have strong grounds for a claim.

Employers have a legal duty to comply with the regulations. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has the power to prosecute most employers if they fail to follow COSHH regulations.