Depending on the type of work you carry out, you may have already heard the term COSHH used in reference to health and safety procedures. If not, then don’t worry. We have created this guide to help you understand COSHH regulations, legislation, employer and employee responsibilities and even some information about training and COSHH risk assessments.

What does COSHH stand for?

The Control of Substances Hazardous to Health (COSHH), is a regulation that covers the use and management of chemicals and substances across multiple industries, some more obvious than not.

COSHH regulations also include the substances themselves, as many businesses don’t consider that the amount they actually hold could cause harm, either through direct contact or contact over time. These include:

  • Biological agents, such as viruses, bacteria, mould etc.
  • Chemicals, e.g. adhesives, solvents, metals, cleaning products, fuels, paints etc.
  • Medicines, drugs, anaesthetics, beauty products.

They are also available in many different forms, like liquids, gases, smoke, fumes, dust, fibres, mists or solids, so thinking about how you and your workers handle these substances is important to get right.

What are COSHH regulations?

COSHH is the law that requires employers to control substances that are hazardous to health, including nanomaterials. If you are a business that uses substances, products that are mixtures of substances or have processes that create substances that could cause harm to employees, contractors and other people then you will be legally required to have a COSHH risk assessment in place.

There are substances that are easily recognised as harmful. But often with new technology, the risks of exposure associated with nanomaterials are not currently fully understood. Whilst these knowledge gaps exist, HSE recommends a precautionary approach to risk management with control strategies aiming to reduce exposure as much as possible.

What are your COSHH responsibilities as an employer?

COSHH regulations state that it is an employer’s responsibility to keep their workforce safe. Employers should make sure that staff have the correct equipment, PPE and training to carry out a task safely. They must also instruct and communicate the process with their staff and monitor them over time.

Below are some of the steps you will need to follow to meet COSHH regulations:

  1. Identify substances – held on-site/through your business’ activities.
  2. Risk Assessments – Carry out a COSHH risk assessment and decide how to control all of the hazards adequately.
  3. Implement control measures – This might be ventilation, extraction, PPE, RPE, replacing with a safer alternative, storage, limiting the amount used, enclosing the area, training staff, using specialist advice etc.
  4. Instruct and Inform – Make sure staff are aware of the processes and procedures that you have put in place.
  5. Create an inventory – This will help you to keep track of all the substances and you can use this as a point of reference in the future.
  6. Storage – Note the best ways to store, clean, dispose and handle the substance, taking fire safety and emergency services into consideration.
  7. Check exposure limits and instructions – Make sure you check the exposure limits for all of the substances in use. List any special instructions from the manufacturer or internal safe handling procedures such as monitoring instructions.
  8. Supervise – Make sure that your employees are following the process and procedures that you have set out and that PPE is updated when required.
  9. Review – Identifying a suitable time to review all of the hazards and procedures (annually as a minimum). Make sure you carry out these steps for any new materials that might be hazardous to health.

Employee responsibilities for COSHH

Although employers do have most of the responsibility when it comes to dealing with substances that could be hazardous to health, ultimately it is the workers who will be required to use the products that contain these substances and they do also have a responsibility to make sure that everyone remains safe from the risks.

  1. The Safety of everyone – Employees who carry out the work are fundamentally those who can cause the most harm to themselves or other. Employees should assist each other to create a safe working environment. This can include supporting colleagues to abide by the regulations specific to their workplace
  2. Following Procedures – Employers have a responsibility to make sure there are the correct procedures in place, but ultimately it is the responsibility of each employee to follow the procedures put in place to stop accidents and overexposure.
  3. Using and maintaining PPE (personal protective equipment) – Employees should make sure that they wear the correct PPE. This could include eye and noise protection. This includes ensuring all PPE is stored correctly in the appropriate place and is maintained well so it can keep doing its job. If the PPE becomes worn then it should be reported and replaced.
  4. Accident and Exposure Reporting – Employees must make sure they report and record all accidents, spillages and breakages. This could also include reporting broken machinery or PPE.
  5. Health Check-ups – Lots of businesses will use biological monitoring to make sure that their COSHH procedures are working. Employees must attend medical check-ups when required so that employers know that their procedures are working to the required level.
  6. Cleaning – Make sure that once work has been complete they use cleaning and showering facilities provided by employers in line with official procedures.
  7. Training – Keep up to date with training provided by employers. COSHH regulations or new materials may mean you are required to upskill and training will be required.

COSHH symbols and their meaning

COSHH regulations cover a variety of hazardous substances, all of which have signs to help highlight the risks involved with the product or substance they are using. Workers should understand these symbols and the requirements that go with working with each type.

Grid of all nine COSHH Symbols

Corrosive: A substance that can cause damage or even destroy substances that it comes into contact with by causing a chemical reaction. These can exist as any state of matter, including liquids, solids, gases, mists and vapours.

Acute Toxicity: Chemicals that are toxic to health should someone be exposed to them. If this symbol features T+ in the corner of the symbol it means that the damage to health can be caused at low levels of exposure and additional care should be taken.

Oxidising: Chemicals that when reacting with other substances or environments cause an exothermic reaction which often leads to combustion. Some of the most common oxidizing agents are oxygen, hydrogen peroxide and halogens.

Flammable: This symbol is used on substances that will ignite as soon as it is exposed to a flame.

Gas Under Pressure: This symbol represents a situation where gas is being stored under pressure. This includes gas contained under pressure which may explode when heated and refrigerated gas which could lead to cryogenic injuries.

Explosive: This symbol represents where a substance is being used and there is a risk of explosion. An example of these would be a mass explosion hazard, severe projection hazard or fire, blast or projection hazard

Health Hazard: This is a general COSHH symbol and is to highlight that there is a hazard to health. This could include dizziness, damage caused to the skin or health issues should the substance be inhaled.

Serious Health Hazard: This symbol is used for chemicals that offer serious or long-term health issues. They are often cancer-causing (carcinogenic) agents or substances with respiratory, reproductive or organ toxicity causing damage over time.  

Hazardous to the Environment: Chemicals that offer a threat to wildlife, plant life, people, and weather systems. These effects could be an immediate danger to the environment but they may also have a delayed reaction.

Some substances may have one or more of these symbols, so look closely. The COSHH assessments, completed by an experienced, competent person, utilising the correct manufacturer information, should set up comprehensive guidelines to distribute to all everyone in your business using or being exposed to a substance.

Do I need a COSHH Assessment?

COSHH risk assessments are often confused with the Material/Manufacturers Safety Data Sheet (MSDS), but they’re not the same and distinguishing between the two is important.

A COSHH Assessment or COSHH risk assessment is exactly that. A risk assessment that only focuses on the dangers of the substances that you use. The assessment will outline what the substances are and then the procedures put in place to stop or reduce risks to those who use them.

However, the MSDS is a document compiled by the manufacturer of a substance, detailing its ingredients, reactive factors and recommendations on how to handle it correctly and for how long contact is advised.

What if a Substance doesn’t have an MSDS?

Going back to our initial list of what COSHH covers, biological agents such as moulds etc. can be hard to decipher and find an MSDS for. Therefore, mould should be treated with extra caution. This applies to the by-products created in the work process too, such as wood or silica dust from cutting activities, solvent vapours from metalworking fluids or adhesives curing. These again are hard to quantify, and the environmental impact should be at the focal point of your controls.

This information is vital to make those who use the substance do so safely. However, without a COSHH assessment, a business can’t apply it across the board to their day-to-day activity and put in place the right controls.

Workplace Exposure Limits (WELs)

There are thousands of substances used in workplaces across a variety of industries but there are only about 500 which have Workplace Exposure Limits (WELs) in place. Work Exposure Limits, which give the technical breakdown of how much and how often it’s safe for any one person to be exposed to a substance.

The routes to exposure are:

  • By breathing fume, dust, gas or mist.
  • By skin contact.
  • By injection into the skin.
  • By swallowing.

You can view all substances with Workplace Exposure Limits (WELs) in EH40 workplace exposure limits

How do I know if exposure is below Workplace Exposure Limits (WELs)?

The only well to tell if your procedures are helping with exposure is to monitor your staff and their environment.

You can measure substances in the air that the worker breathes while the task is underway. This guidance sheet by the HSE, Exposure measurement: Air sampling G409 (PDF) tells you what to expect from a competent consultant who provides monitoring services.

You can also check your staff for exposure. Companies such as ELAS OH, our sister company offer biological monitoring services. This means you can have your staff tested for chemical exposure. This will help you to determine whether the measures you have put in place are working to the required level or if there should be changes made.

COSHH Training

Combining COSHH Risk assessments with suitable COSHH awareness training, ongoing monitoring and up-to-date safe working procedures will minimise future risk, but be warned, the reaches of COSHH are complex and therefore misunderstood by most, so getting competent and qualified advice is your best bet.

Need COSHH Training for your employees?

Need Extra Support?

We understand that writing COSHH assessments can be overwhelming, but it doesn’t have to be. Here at HS Direct, we can support you through the entire process and have a huge range of COSHH Assessment Templates tailored to some of the most commonly used hazardous substances.

We also have a FREE COSHH Assessment template for those who need something a bit less specific.  

For more information on how we can support your business, get in touch with our experts by calling 0114 244 4461. Alternatively, you can request a call-back and we’ll be in touch at a time that suits you.