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COSHH - Hazardous Substances Routes of Entry

Contamination and Accidental Ingestion

Two construction workers eating sandwiches

Where there is a COSHH risk present in a place of work, a number of extra precautions need to be taken to prevent the hazardous substance from entering the body.

One precaution involves the consumption of food. A number of workers will be tempted to have lunch or a snack but either forget or deliberately choose to not wash their hands before handling food. If they have been working with a hazardous substance, this may still be present on their hands and be transferred onto the food before it is eaten and ingested. Even if the person has not been involved in the handling of the substance, they may still have gotten it on their hands from touching objects such as door handles which have been touched by others who have. Examples of such COSHH risks include paint, chemical cleaners and petrol. In fact, petrol and chemical cleaners will be particularly hard to detect as they will be practically invisible, unlike paint which should be easy to detect on a hand or door handle.

To combat this risk of COSHH contamination and accidental ingestion, workers should be made aware through suitable COSHH courses of the necessity for taking precautions such as washing hands after handling substances and before touching food. They should also be fully informed before starting work of the dangers posed by the substances they are working with, as well as the welfare facilities in place.

It is important that workers understand that COSHH related illnesses and conditions may not show up for many years or late into a person's life. Exposure to hazardous substances over time, even those considered low-risk and in small quantities, can build up over time until the damage becomes irreversible, so whilst some instances of a substance being consumed may not do any damage, if it becomes a regular occurrence over the course of a person's working life, it may be too late to reverse the consequences.

How Can Hazardous Substances Enter the Body?

Young man with stomach discomfort

Hazardous substances are present in some form in virtually every place of work. COSHH - the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health - regulations aim to protect workers from suffering short-term or long-term ill health through working with hazardous and harmful substances. Whilst the danger and level of hazard will vary depending on the particular industry, even what are considered low risk working environments will almost certainly contain some sort of COSHH risk such as cleaning fluids like bleach.

Hazardous substances can take a variety of forms, which obviously affect how the particular substance can enter or have an effect on a person's body. A COSHH risk assessment should not only determine which hazardous substances pose a risk to health, but also to identify how these particular substances can enter the body, so that remedial action can be taken to prevent harm occurring.

Although there are a number of methods and routes of entry for a person to acquire a harmful substance into the body, the three main ones are:

Inhaling:- Breathing in a hazardous substance is the most common route for a hazardous substance to enter the body. Substances such as harmful fumes, organic contaminates like fungi or bacteria, or inorganic particles like dust can all be inhaled, where they enter the lungs, causing damage to them, or are absorbed into the bloodstream where harmful toxins can be spread around the body, causing potential damage to organs.

Absorption through the skin:- This method of entry occurs when the substance in question comes into contact with the skin and enters the body through an open wound or through the pores of the skin.

Ingestion:- Although not as common as the other two methods listed above, substances which are harmful to health can also be ingested through the mouth either by breathing in dust particles through the mouth, or by accidental swallowing (e.g. a hazardous substance on the hands which was not washed off before handling food).

Injection:- Accidental injuries caused by sharp objects can penetrate the skin and allow harmful substances into the body. Particular hazards include discarded needles and syringes. There are numerous occupations where sharps risks are present including customs officials searching luggage, waste disposal workers (either medical waste or household), and construction workers where illegal drug use may have taken place on abandoned or derelict sites, or even current building sites if there have been trespassers on site overnight during the construction work.

Once harmful substances have entered the body, they can cause damage to one or more of the body's systems, depending upon the type of substance in question and its particular properties. The systems of the body that are most at risk are the respiratory system, the cardiovascular system, the nervous system and the urinary system.

As with most risks, prevention is a much more preferable option than dealing with the consequences. For this reason, it is vital that your employees receive suitable COSHH training which covers the particular substances that they will be working with or around during their workplace activities. COSHH training should therefore form a part of your programme of health and safety training, including managers and supervisors being able to perform a sufficient COSHH risk assessment.

The Need for Safe Storage of COSHH Hazards

Substances which are hazardous to health are not only a danger when they are being used; they can also pose just as much of a risk whilst they are being stored. Incorrect, unsuitable or improper storage of hazardous substances can result in leaks, spillages and contamination, not to mention possible explosions and fires.

In fact, it is not uncommon for the results of leaks or other breach of containment to cause far more wider-reaching and destructive consequences to health than using the actual substance on its own normally could ever cause.

For these reasons, the safe and proper storage of hazardous substances is of paramount importance. Not only will storing hazardous COSHH substances safely help to prevent harm from coming to a person, but it will also serve to reduce potential damage to the environment that would occur if, say, oil were to leak out and contaminate the groundwater and surrounding waterways.

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