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Guide to Hazardous Substances In The Workplace

Both employee and public safety are the main priority for employers, but safety guidelines are not always adhered to for several reasons.

In 2018-19, for instance, 12,000 deaths occurred due to the contraction of occupational lung disease – a large proportion of which were caused by hazardous substances (mainly chemicals or dust) – in this day and age, these figures are preventable.

Aside from the moral implications, the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 and Control of Substances Hazardous to Health (COSHH) laws are in place to safeguard workers. In this blog, we’ll list the main hazardous substances and provide a countermeasure to mitigate their harmful effects.


What are hazardous substances? 

The term ‘hazardous substances’ covers many materials and products. It refers to substances that pose a health risk or could cause environmental damage.


Anything can be classed as a hazardous substance if it poses these risks. Harmful products used in work processes, and their by-products, count as hazardous substances. They could be solids, liquids or gases (including vapours or fumes).


Harm could be caused by breathing in, swallowing, skin absorption, infection or injury, and could have short or long-term effects. The dangers that these substances pose mean that they are regulated by strict guidelines to protect workers and companies alike.


What substances are considered hazardous under COSHH?

The risk of harmful exposure applies to workers in almost every industry, and so the regulations are thorough and far-reaching. Employers are responsible for the protection of their employees, but employees are responsible for following health and safety advice.


The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) asserts that exposure to hazardous substances can cause “discomfort, pain, time off work and, all too often, premature retirement and early death”. Employees can be injured through irritation of the skin, sensitisation, infection by bacteria, loss of consciousness or even chronic effects like lung disease or cancer.


Common hazardous substances in the workplace

• Chemicals

• Biological agents

• Caustic substances

• Disinfectants

• Fumes and dust

• Glues

• Heavy metals, such as aluminium, lead, and mercury

• Paint

• Pesticides

• Petroleum

• Solvents


Health effects of hazardous substances 



Develops quickly and is easily identifiable – e.g. exposure to fumes



Difficult to link the chemical to an illness – e.g. carcinogens



Direct effect where the chemical comes into contact with the body – e.g. dermatitis on hands



Affects other or all parts of the body - e.g. chemical breathed in which causes cancer


How to recognise hazardous substances in the workplace

Employees should familiarise themselves with the meaning of each hazard warning symbol so that they know how to adequately and safely handle each object.


Products that are corrosive, flammable, oxidising and damaging to the environment can be identified by a warning symbol printed on their packaging.


List of hazardous substances 



Chemicals are used in a lot of workplaces: from acids to pesticides they are used everywhere from schools and laboratories to garden centres. These substances require specialist handling.

Every day chemicals like cleaning products are found in almost every workplace.

In order to ensure that staff are protected, employers should provide adequate PPE; proper storage facilities and education on best practices.


Fumes and dust 

Fumes and dust are common in many workplaces, but especially in construction or factories. If inhaled, some of these fumes and dust can cause respiratory illnesses, and in some cases, cancer.

In order to ensure that staff are protected, workplaces should invest in proper ventilation, adequate PPE and training.


Biological agents 

Biological agents like bacteria and blood are common in labs, universities, and hospitals.

Blood is extremely hazardous and requires careful disposal. Many workplaces are at risk of

Legionella (that leads to Legionnaires’ disease) due to the presence of a water system.

To minimise risk, health and safety procedure should always be followed regarding the disposal and handling of biological agents. Water safety standards should always be maintained.


How should workplaces deal with hazardous substances?

COSHH sets out regulations to handle hazardous substances in the workplace.


It’s commonly thought that PPE (i.e. goggles; hardhats etc.) is the first line of defence against hazardous substances, but it is, in fact, the last line of defence. Employers should conduct a risk assessment and aim to lower the risk before relying on PPE. All employees have a responsibility to be aware of potential hazards and the necessary safety measures and procedures



The most effective way to minimise the risk posed by hazardous substances is to remove them from business processes entirely, or by changing the procedures that require or produce them. Automated processes eliminate the need for workers to encounter harmful substances.



When the harmful substance cannot be removed from the process, the process should be modified. Consider the properties of the substance to work out whether a less hazardous substance could do the same job.

Other methods of risk reduction include engineering controls like ventilation systems, or barriers or screens. Administrative controls can also be used, for example, training staff or creating information posters.


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