- Discover what is a hazardous substance in the workplace.
- Understand different types of hazardous substances and where they’re commonly found.
- Find out who is most at risk working with hazardous substances and your responsibilities as an employer.
A hazardous substance at work is a substance or mixture that may cause harm if inhaled, ingested or comes in contact with or is absorbed through the skin. Substances are deemed hazardous if they have inherent hazardous properties – flammability, explosiveness, toxicity or the ability to oxidise. Substances are also considered hazardous if they result in the following:
- Disease – such as lung cancer or Leukaemia (the latter can be caused by the chemical benzene) and skin diseases such as dermatitis. Exposure to health hazards at work is estimated to cause around 4% of all cancer cases in the UK.
- Respiratory issues – such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) that are caused by gases (chlorine or carbon monoxide), liquids (degreasing solvents), vapours (from adhesives); or dust, powders and pastes (wood, cement and stone dust)
- Burns – typically chemical rather than thermal, arising from contact with strong acids, alkaloids or other corrosive or caustic materials that destroy skin and deeper tissues.
What is a hazardous substance in the workplace?
Some hazardous substances are more obvious than others. Industrial chemicals, radioactive materials, fuels and pesticides are all types of substances that – if labelled correctly – pose an obvious danger to the health of your employees and the environment.
Other types of hazardous substances are less obvious – and that can lead to employees and customers accidentally mishandling a substance that could cause them ill health or injury. It’s essential to ensure staff have adequate hazardous substance training to recognise any dangers. As an employer, you have a duty of care to protect staff, the environment, and public members from harm – failure to do so can lead to fines and even imprisonment.
What is a hazardous substance?
Hazardous substances in the workplace can be broadly organised into the following hazardous substance list:
- Chemicals – such as liquids, gases and fumes.
- Biological agents – such as fungi.
- Germs – such as bacteria.
- Nanotechnology – such as fibres and small particles.
While it can be hard to determine whether the category is a gas or a vapour when deciding what is a hazardous substance, it is crucial to be aware of all substances in your workplace that can be hazardous and that they exist in several different forms.
Almost every business uses chemicals in the workplace in some form. Chemicals can range from items such as printer ink and toner to cleaning materials, hair dyes and welding fumes.
Chemicals used in the workplace can be found in several forms, including:
- Liquids such as liquid bleach and cleaning materials.
- Gases such as carbon monoxide gas and propane.
- Fumes and vapours such as dust, soot and welding fumes.
Hazardous liquids can be grouped into various categories: from convulsants and vesicants that cause blistering to corrosives, caustics, solvents and irritants.
Hazardous liquid chemicals include hydrogen cyanide, arsine, ammonia, chlorine, phosgene, strychnine and hydrazine.
Examples: Cleaning products, nail glue, detergents, pesticides, herbicides, fuels, shampoos and hair dyes.
Chemical gases are found in various places, such as carbon monoxide from unventilated heating systems, propane gas fuel and hydrogen chloride as used in some food processing plants.
Hazardous chemical gases include arsine, boron, bromine, carbon monoxide, ethane, hydrogen chloride, neon, nitrogen, propane and phosphorous.
Examples: The fumes of paints, antifreeze, detergents and glues can be hazardous. They can also be present in environments where gases may build up, such as in coal production, construction or engineering projects.
Fumes/vapours and mists
These are the airborne hazards but are not classified as gases. Instead, mists are made up of fine drops of liquid, and fumes are the gaseous residues from combustion, usually accompanied by an odour. Vapours contain solid matter, such as building materials, but in fine forms such as dust or soot.
Fume, vapours and mist-based chemicals include soots, metal oxide particles, dust and fumes from liquid chemicals.
- Fumes can be released from smelting and welding. Steel welding, for example, contains mostly iron with small amounts of additive metals such as chromium, nickel, manganese, molybdenum, vanadium, titanium, cobalt and copper. Fumes can be found in woodworking and other dust environments, such as construction.
- Mists contain particulates from aerosols and may be found in environments with spray painting, such as car bodywork garages, metalworking, plasma and laser cutting, and food processing.
- Fumes and vapours may emit from solvents, such as paint, adhesives and cleaning materials.
Biological agents cover various organic hazardous substances, including blood-borne infections such as hepatitis and malaria, parasites and fungi that can cause harmful effects ranging from allergic reactions to disability or death.
Biological agents include mycotoxins, endotoxins, glucans and enzymes, as well as mould, yeasts and allergens such as pollen, plant material and animal proteins found in urine, hair and skin.
Examples: Biological agents are found in various natural or organic materials such as soil, food and bodily fluids. These can be present in many places such as hospitals, schools, parks and fields, and animal welfare shelters.
Small organisms such as bacteria cause disease. More than 10 million bacteria are said to be found on an average office desk – 400 times more than that found on the average toilet seat
Germs include bacteria such as salmonella, E.coli, campylobacter and staphylococcus aureus, as well as viruses such as norovirus, cold and flu viruses.
Examples: All workplace surfaces that come into human contact, such as desks, keyboards, handles, buttons on lifts and workplace toilets can be contaminated with germs. Some jobs have a higher risk of exposure, such as nurseries and schools, hospitals and doctor’s surgeries, laundry services, meat processing plants and veterinarian surgeries. Trades such as plumbing may be exposed to damp, mould and human waste.
Typically comprising engineered materials that are so small (less than 100 nanometers in one width) that they can be ingested, inhaled or even enter the body through the skin. Nanotechnology is classified as metal-based materials, carbon-based materials, composites or dendrimers, known as nanosized polymers. Nanomaterial can also occur naturally, such as clay particles.
Nanotechnology includes fibres and ultra-fine particles from power plants and diesel engine exhaust, as well as nanomaterials such as silica, carbon nanotubes, graphene, titanium dioxide and cerium dioxide.
Examples: Nanomaterials are often byproducts of mechanical or industrial processes, which means they can occur in many common products such as agrochemicals that use silica as a carrier, and paints and coatings that can use titanium dioxide. Other sources of nanoparticles include vehicle engine exhausts, welding fumes, combustion processes from domestic solid fuel heating and cooking. They are also found in aerosols and dust.
Other hazardous substances
It’s worth knowing that some hazardous substances are not covered by CoSHH regulations. Instead, they are subject to their own unique set of regulations:
- Lead and
- Radioactive substances
Find out more about how our hazardous substances online training course can help your staff correctly identify hazardous substances in the workplace.
Who is at risk from hazardous substances?
Anyone using chemicals or other hazardous substances at work can be at risk, but identifying some hazardous substances is not always obvious. For example, cleaners, healthcare workers, hairdressers and beauticians may be as much at risk of toxic substances as builders, farmers, and chemical plant workers.
Anyone who has frequent contact with substances over a long period without protective masks or clothing can be impacted through exposure or absorption. Those exposed for longer and more frequently to a hazardous substance, such as cleaner who uses bleach or solvents daily, are generally more at risk than those exposed for shorter periods.
Who is responsible for the safety of hazardous substances?
Under the COSHH 2002 – the Control of Substances, Hazardous to Health Regulations, employers must protect their employees and other persons from hazardous substances used in the workplace. In addition to carrying out a risk assessment, employers must take steps to control exposure to hazardous substances and supply their employees with information, instruction, training and appropriate protective equipment where necessary.
Help protect your employees
Prevention is better than cure, and employers have a legal duty to protect staff, the public and the environment from the harmful effects of hazardous substances. Our expert hazardous substance online training can help support staff in the workplace and keep them up-to-date on how to recognise what is a hazardous substance and its effects.