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COSHH Exposure Over Time

A man coughing with respiratory problems

Unlike accidents where the impact on a person's health is immediate and easy to see, the damage caused by COSHH related substances can often be sustained over a period of time, with little or no obvious symptoms showing up for quite a while, sometimes when the damage is so extensive that it is irreversible. In this case, the person may have to live with the condition for the rest of their lives, or in particularly serious cases, the substances may even have led to a condition which will eventually cause death.

Respiratory problems are an example of a typical condition caused by small doses of exposure to dust or harmful fumes during a person's occupation, and is a particular risk in industries like construction. During construction work, a builder who sands or knocks down an old wall or whatever may breathe in a small amount of dust and think nothing of it. This can happen over and over again for many months or even years before the cumulative effects of breathing in all this dust start to have a noticeable effect on their health. Respiratory ailments such as asthma or a persistent bad cough may then plague the person for the rest of their life. In other cases, the regular exposure to other hazardous substances like toxic fumes may lead to conditions such as various forms of cancer.

It could be said that workers are more at risk from this type of hazard than those that permits to work etc in place, because they know that the material can cause injury or death quickly. However, because most substances such as dust or fumes are safe in small quantities, thoughts towards health and safety are often not even considered. A similar analogy would be how some people are more likely to pull out without looking at a junction on a quiet village road when they do not expect anything to be coming the other way, than they are at a busy main road when they suspect that there is the potential for a hazard to be present (i.e. other cars are almost certain to be coming along the road).

It is often the factors which are perceived not to be a threat and are not given the attention they deserve that can cause the most damage. Just like driving, a lack of concentration or pre-determined expectation that everything will be ok can often be the most dangerous situations of all.

Reducing COSHH Exposure

When it comes to COSHH and hazardous substances, it is obviously preferable to have as little exposure as is possible in order to avoid any harm to a person's health, either short-term or long-term. Companies should not only concentrate on keeping COSHH exposure levels below the maximum limits for the particular substances, but should also actively seek to reduce the current levels of exposure. Three of the most common ways of doing this are through the reduction of quantity, the substitution of the substance with another less hazardous one, or eliminating most if not all of the danger altogether by buying pre-made ingredients.

Reducing Quantity

Whilst it may seem an obvious one, it may be possible to achieve the same results but with less of the dangerous substance. For example, it may be possible to use a more dilute concentration of the substance rather than in neat form, or in the case of acids, to neutralise the solution before it passes to workers for disposal. Also, stored COSHH substances present a danger to people and the environment if they escape through leaking or as a result of a fire causing damage. By ordering smaller quantities and so then storing less, the potential and scale for harm is reduced.

There are a number of ways in which COSHH dangers can enter the body, and so the less of the hazard that is present, the lower the chances of it posing a danger to the health of a worker. This is assuming of course that all necessary safety precautions continue to be followed, as well as the information learnt on COSHH health and safety training courses.

Substitution with a less harmful substance

Many hazardous substances can be replaced with less dangerous ones with little to no effect on processes, quality or an increase in costs. For instance, water-based products may be just as fit for purpose as solvent-based ones. From a management point of view, even if there is a slight increase in costs through using a safer substitute product, it is likely to be far less than the costs of providing personal protective equipment (PPE), as well as the potential costs of legal action and compensation claims that may arise from workers exposed to harmful substances.

Both managers and employees alike, however, need to keep in mind that just because a particular substance is less dangerous, it does not mean that it is completely safe and poses no potential risk whatsoever. Even though the risks may be lower, the same precautions, control measures, learnt information and common sense still needs to be applied to prevent harm befalling a person.

Changing the form of the incoming substance

Rather than a company mixing chemicals or whatever themselves to create something, it may be possible to buy in the solution ready-made. Whilst the "finished" solution itself might still pose a COSHH risk, particulary if it still needs to be stored or there is a risk of leakage or spillage, it might be much less dangerous for workers if they do not have to handle many different dangerous chemicals in order to create it. It will probably cost more to buy in the substance ready-made, but again, this costs needs to be compared with the potential costs of PPE and other controls that would otherwise be needed, along with the potential for fines and compensation claims.

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