Home>Health & Wellbeing>General Health & Wellbeing>Dealing with hazardous substances

Dealing with hazardous substances

12 November 2015

Dr Karen McDonnell, occupational safety and health policy adviser at the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA), has issued a reminder of the importance of properly dealing with hazardous substances.

"Substances which can have a dangerous effect on the health of workers abound, particularly in manufacturing environments. Asbestos is perhaps the most infamous, with the extent of its deadly impact on Britain only now being truly felt as those who have had previous contact with it succumb to mesothelioma. But a look at the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations (COSHH) will show how wide-ranging and varied the issue is, and how careful employers must be to protect their workforce.

"Soldering or welding fumes, wood dust, cleaning products, flour dust, paints and acids, chlorine, carbon monoxide, biological agents such as fungi – the list goes on. And despite the fact that the vast majority of workplaces up and down the country enforce stringent COSHH measures, occasionally firms can still fall foul of the law.

"Earlier this year, Edinburgh-based Macfarlan Smith pleaded guilty to safety failings after an employee was exposed to hazardous substances. The pharmaceutical manufacturer was fined £27,000 after breaching Section 2 of the Health and Safety at Work Act. The court heard that between April 2004 and January 2010, the company failed to review and ensure the health, safety and welfare of an employee after he continued to work with 14-Hydroxycodeinone and other hazardous substances, such as Oxycodone after he had been diagnosed with allergic contact dermatitis as a result of the exposure.

"As ever I am keen to emphasise the effect on employees in cases of health and safety breaches, as behind the fines and convictions, ultimately the most damage is done to those whose lives have been changed.

"Despite advice from a medical professional, the employee in this case continued to work with both substances, which resulted in him suffering from skin sensitisation. After working for Macfarlan Smith Limited for about 17 years, the company terminated his employment as it considered it impossible to redeploy him to suitable alternative duties due to his sensitisation.

"The worst thing about cases like this is that contact with hazardous substances is 100 per cent preventable, regardless of the amount of such substances employees are working with.

"Whether it’s an occasional encounter with asbestos on a construction site, or day-to-day handling of chemicals on a production line, there is always some way that employers can keep their staff safe and free from harm. Although it can sometimes be a complex and lengthy process to assess risks and implement proper safety procedures, it really is worth the time and effort if it saves your employees the heartache of a life-changing injury or sickness, and your company’s reputation.

"For those wanting to refresh their memories (which I would suggest is done on a regular basis, regardless of how well you think you know the health risks in your workplace), Healthy Working Lives – in association with RoSPA, HSE and the Scottish Chamber of Safety – produced the extremely handy Health Risks at Work Toolkit, which gives employers and health and safety staff an at-a-glance overview of risks to health in the workplace and simple information on the different ways in which employees can be harmed. It also details the process for choosing the right preventative measures, signposting to additional sources of information.

"In addition to hazardous substances the toolkit, now promoted by Safety Groups UK, also addresses other health risks in the workplace, such as how to tackle the potential for musculoskeletal disorders, mitigating noise and vibration, and how to ensure a proper work-life balance for you and your employees.

"I can’t recommend it highly enough. The document can be found under the resources tab on the Healthy Working Lives website, www.healthyworkinglives.com."