Starter pack: everything you need to know about COSHH

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The world of COSHH can be pretty confusing – especially if you’re new to it all, so, to help you understand the ins and outs of everything you need to know to keep you, your business and your employees safe, in this article we’ll be covering five core areas:

  • What COSHH is
  • The cost of getting it wrong
  • The benefits of getting it right
  • How to complete a risk assessment
  • When and how to review your risk assessment.

Let’s get stuck in.

What is COSHH?

COSHH stands for the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health and it’s a set of regulations that require employers to do just that: control any substances that are hazardous to people’s health.

The regulations are robust and cover everything from risk-assessing hazards and implementing control measures to providing useful information and running health surveillance surveys.

To comply with COSHH you must:

  • Identify which, if any, substances pose a health hazard.
  • Complete a thorough risk assessment.
  • Implement appropriate control measures.
  • Regularly check in to make sure everyone’s following your protocols.
  • Ensure your control measures remain in working order.
  • Provide people who’re exposed to hazardous substances with sufficient information, instruction, and training.
  • Conduct health surveillance surveys (if and where appropriate).
  • Have a plan in place in the event of an emergency.

To help comply with COSHH regulations, it’s recommended to undertake a COSHH training course for relevant staff members. General workplace health and safety courses are also beneficial.

Who does COSHH apply to?

Although some businesses (like chemical plants and commercial cleaning companies, for example) will be more exposed to hazardous substances than others, most organisations will have at least one or two products that are regulated by the rules – such as a cleaning agent.

And remember, some substances aren’t necessarily hazardous by themselves but they can become dangerous when mixed with something else. Equally, certain processes can create substances that are hazardous too – like the fumes emitted from welding or soldering, for example.

What’s classed as a hazardous substance?

Some of the most common examples include:

  • Chemicals,
  • Products containing chemicals,
  • Fumes,
  • Dusts,
  • Vapours,
  • Mists,
  • Nanotechnology,
  • Gasses,
  • Asphyxiating gases,
  • Biological agents,
  • Germs that cause diseases (like Legionnaire’s disease), and
  • Germs used in laboratories.

COSHH explicitly doesn’t cover lead, asbestos or radioactive substances – if you’re working with any of these they have their own, separate set of regulations for you to follow.

The cost of getting it wrong

During 2017/2018 the average fine per COSHH conviction was £8,600, but that’s by no means a limit. There have been six-figure punishments in the past like this Bristol-based company who exposed employees to hazardous substances for four years, which caused the onset of a disease called ‘allergic contact dermatitis’, and resulted in a £100,000 fine.

Business-breaking numbers.

The repercussions can root far deeper than your bank balance though. We’ll cover the reverse in the business benefits section next, but here are just a handful of the non-monetary costs of getting COSHH wrong:

  • Reputation damages if word gets out which could result in:
  • Recruitment difficulties, and
  • Sales slumps.
  • Loss of productivity while you’re managing enforcement action.
  • Negative morale if employees feel you don’t care for their safety – which might reflect in your turnover rates.

And although none of these directly impact your bottom line, sooner or later, they’ll indirectly nibble their way into it.

The business benefits

Now let’s take a look at the rosier side of things. If you take the time to properly carry out your COSHH responsibilities you and your business will benefit from:

  • A happier and more productive workforce who feel valued because you’re proactively looking after their safety.
  • A better brand image which will help you attract and retain top talent.
  • Being seen as a company who cares by customers, suppliers, partners and investors.
  • Staying on the right side of the law, which will keep the HSE, enforcement action and fines at bay.
  • Being aware of when to alert your local authority about a substance or process they need to know about, because, let’s be honest, that’s the kind of thing that can slip your mind unless your attention is honed in on it.
  • Peace of mind no stone’s gone unturned and not a single employee is unknowingly being exposed to hazardous substances.
  • Uncovering safety regulations around substances that aren’t protected by COSHH but are regulated by other rules, adding another layer of safety to your business and ensuring you remain compliant across the board.

How to do a risk assessment

A lot of people find risk assessments daunting – COSHH or otherwise, but they really aren’t that bad. To show you, we’ve broken the whole process down into five simple steps.

Step 1: identify which substances are hazardous

You only have to risk assess substances that are legally classed as ‘hazardous’, so, first things first, put a list together of every substance within your business that is.

Remember: some substances only become hazardous when they’re mixed with something else, and some harmful substances can be produced as the result of a process – like the silica dust that’s emitted from tile cutting, for example.

If you’re not sure how to distinguish harmful substances start by looking at labels; if a product’s hazardous it’ll have a red and white diamond-shaped label on it along with a brief explanation of its hazardous nature, like ‘serious health hazard’ or ‘acute toxicity’.

COSHH symbols

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Tip: if you can’t find the hazardous nature on the product’s label take a look at its Safety Data Sheet. This should have been supplied by the manufacturer but if it isn’t give them a call and request the most up-to-date version.

It’s really important to remember Safety Data Sheets are by no means a substitute for your COSHH risk assessment, they merely help you determine what sort of control measures you need.

Step 2: understand who’s at risk

Once you know which substances are a risk you need to work out who’s at risk and this includes:

  • Employees,
  • Visitors,
  • Customers, and
  • Anyone who could come into contact with it.

Then, from your list, see if any vulnerable people are at greater risk than others. These bullets are by no means exhaustive but some common examples of vulnerable employees are:

  • Pregnant women,
  • Young people,
  • Disabled people, and
  • People with a known illness.

If you’re not 100% confident you’ve got all the intel you need to complete this section yourself it might be worth asking everyone to fill in a health screening questionnaire first.

Step 3: work out the risk

By this stage, you should have two comprehensive lists: one of hazardous substances and another of people at risk. With this in tow, it’s time to turn your attention to how much risk is actually involved by referring to the products’ labels and Safety Data Sheets and speaking to suppliers and employees.

When you’re working through your risk analysis ask yourself questions like:

  • How can the substance harm someone’s health?
  • Which jobs result in exposure?
  • Have there been any previous incidents?
  • How often is the substance used?
  • Are impacted employees trained on how to handle the substance?

Step 4: take action

The penultimate step involves taking a hierarchical approach to putting appropriate, protective measures in place.

1. Eliminate the risk If the substance isn’t actually needed consider changing your process altogether to remove it.
2. Reduce the risk If removal isn’t an option see if there’s scope to swap it with something less hazardous.
3. Engineering methods Can how you use the substance be altered to something on the safer side? Like storing it in an enclosed space?

And here are a few other questions to consider during this process:

  • Is it safe to assign less people to the job so fewer people are at risk?
  • Have impacted employees been adequately trained and equipped?
  • Are you regularly reassessing your current measures and exploring alternative options?

Communicate, communicate, communicate

Remember, people can’t read your mind so make sure you clearly communicate your findings and changes and check everyone fully understands what they’ve been told.

Step 5: documenting your assessment

Last but not least, you need to make sure all this is recorded in some way to a) prove you’ve done it and b) give employees something to refer to. There isn’t really a defined way of how you should set your COSHH risk assessment out but something as simple as a spreadsheet would do.

Here are some ideas for your columns:

  • Substance name,
  • Where the substance is used,
  • Why the substance is used,
  • Hazardous properties,
  • Who’s at risk, and
  • What control measures are in place.

When to review your risk assessment

As with any other type, your COSHH risk assessment isn’t a one-off job and a new one should be carried out:

  1. Whenever you bring a new substance into the business, and
  2. If changes are made to the Safety Data Sheet of a substance you house.

If neither of these happens often though, it’s recommended you review your assessment every 12 months.

As well as re-evaluating your paperwork remember to regularly spot check employees are following your processes (if you’re worried things have slipped it might be worth running refresher sessions) and that your way of working’s still fit for purpose.