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COSHH Risk Assessment

What is a COSHH Risk Assessment?

Rusting hazardous substance storage tank

A COSHH risk assessment describes the process undertaken by an organisation in order to identify potential COSHH hazards before they happen, so that appropriate preventative actions and controls can be introduced in order to either eliminate completely, or at least reduce, the chances of such an occurrence or incident taking place.

A proper COSHH risk assessment will also look at controls and procedures for COSHH risks that have already been thought of and put into place, and identify how well it/they are working, and recommend changes that will further eliminate that COSHH risk.

It may also highlight any COSHH training needs that workers have in order to improve their COSHH understanding and working practices.

Who Needs a COSHH Risk Assessment?

Organisations in virtually any industry will need to conduct a COSHH risk assessment, to see how employees are/could be affected by hazardous substances used or produced as a by-product by the company. One of the most frequent points that comes out of any health and safety training is that prevention is the most preferable course of action. Conducting a COSHH risk assessment is a crucial step in achieving this objective.

Most people think of manufacturing firms when they think of COSHH, with mental images of workers handling lethal chemicals. The reality is that the substances do not have to be potential killers to fall under the COSHH umbrella. COSHH stands for the 'Control of Substances Hazardous to Health', and is concerned with all substances that could be hazardous to health, from minor irritants to lethal chemicals.

Because of this vast spectrum of substances, an organisation in virtually any industry will have workers who have the potential to come into contact with harmful substances. Examples include workers at food outlets handling disinfectants, builders using paint, car mechanics coming into contact with hydraulic fluid etc.

Also, COSHH dangers do not always have to be substances which can affect the body externally. Fumes and dust which are inhaled pose serious health risks, especially over the long-term, as is the unintentional consumption of chemicals, for example, a worker drinking a clear chemical from an unmarked container thinking that it was water.

A COSHH risk assessment will cover all of these potential hazards, and as a result can be quite extensive. However, by eliminating or introducing effective preventative controls, it should prevent workers becoming ill or being killed as a result of the substances in their workplace.

There are also COSHH regulations and legislation which needs to be taken into consideration and changes made to comply with the law.

COSHH Risks on a Construction Site

Supervisors on a construction site

A construction site has the potential to have a number of COSHH (Control of Substances Hazardous to Health) risks associated with it, either from the activities taking place there, or from previous occupiers of the land or trespassers on site.

These substances which can be hazardous to health come in a variety of forms, such as dust, fumes, liquids which can be spilled etc. A large number of the substances used on a construction site have a COSHH risk associated with them, whether that be in the form it comes in (i.e. a chemical), or created as a result of a particular process (e.g. wood which poses no risk until it is cut and gives off a lot of dust/shavings which can be inhaled and so are now a COSHH risk to a person's health.

Solvents/fumes and dust are normally the two most common forms of COSHH dangers found on a construction site. Chemicals such as paint, glue, thinners, white spirit etc give off harmful fumes which can be hazardous to health if inhaled in specific quantities. Dust is created whenever activities such as demolishing walls, mixing cement or cutting takes place. If possible, this work should be done outside rather than in a confined space so that the dust can dissipate quickly.

Certain types of substances have Workplace Exposure Limits (WELs), which are set legal limits that people can be exposed to. Being exposed to a concentration above these limits is extremely dangerous, as well as illegal.

The large number of COSHH hazards that may be encountered, along with the seriousness and potential damage to a person's short-term or long-term health that can be caused by harmful substances means that many health and safety training courses that are intended for construction workers such as the NEBOSH Construction Certificate now contain sections or elements devoted to COSHH and hazardous substances.

As mentioned in the opening paragraph, a COSHH risk can also be present by previous occupiers of the land or people trespassing. It is not unknown for illegal drug use to have taken place on an abandoned site or in a derelict building, meaning that workers need to be aware of the sharps risk posed by used needles or syringes which may be present and could pass-on diseases like HIV. Previous owners of the land my have left hazardous material on the site which could pose a health risk and will need to be removed and disposed of correctly.

Along with Workplace Exposure Limits, The Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations 2002 (as amended) are in place to protect workers from COSHH risks and force employers to take steps and appropriate precautions such as performing a suitable COSHH risk assessment.

Construction Site COSHH Risks - Cement

There are numerous COSHH hazards facing construction workers, which means that COSHH training is particularly important for those who work on a construction site. These risks come in various states, including liquids, mists, vapours and dusts, and have various methods of entry into the body. COSHH training therefore plays a key role in the overall health and safety training of your employees.

A specific example, and one of the most common forms of COSHH substances found on a construction site, is cement. Cement poses a potential hazard in both dry form and wet, which are described in more detail below:

COSHH Risk - Dry Cement

Dry cement which is disturbed through cutting, grinding, sanding etc will throw up a lot of cement dust into the air. Not only will this dust irritate the nose and throat to cause sneezing, choking and breathing difficulty (particularly amongst asthma sufferers) but the dust will contain crystalline silica, which may lead to potentially fatal disease of the lungs called Silicosis, particularly if a construction worker is exposed to cement dust over a prolonged period of time.

COSHH Risk - Wet Cement

With wet cement, there is a risk of burns, which may sound unusual initially as no fire is involved, but is in fact due to the alkaline properties of the wet cement, which burn the skin. Wet cement can sometimes get trapped between the skin and personal protective equipment (PPE) to cause burning, so care must still be taken even when protective clothing is worn.

COSHH Risks From Mists

One of the most common forms of COSHH risks come from chemical agents, which are often in the form of gases, liquids, vapours and mists. These can easily enter the body, primarily through inhalation, although they can also enter through the skin by ingestion.

The types of chemicals will vary tremendously in terms of toxicity and the potential hazard to a person's health. However, even chemicals which are considered low-risk can still have a severe impact on a person's health later in life if they are exposed to the substance over a long period of time (e.g. small doses for years). To help workers understand and be more aware of the dangers that substances hazardous to heath pose both in the short term and in the long term, putting them on COSHH training courses can be highly beneficial, as can other health and safety courses covering different topics regarding being safe at work.

In terms of chemical forms, mists are often encountered in particular places of work in certain industries. Like vapours they exist close to their boiling temperature, but mists are closer to the liquid stage than a vapour is. A mist is primarily encountered in workplaces which operate spraying processes, the most obvious of which is during spray painting. If it is not possible for the paint spraying process to be done by robotic machinery, all suitable precautions need to be taken to ensure that workers involved in the paint spraying process are protected from the hazardous mist. This is likely to involve the mandatory wearing of protective suits which cover the entire body to prevent absorption through or irritation of the skin (as well as protecting clothes from staining!), and wearing suitable respiratory protective equipment (RPE).

COSHH Risks - Fungi

Fungi COSHH health hazard

Fungi are organisms which feed on organic matter. The most common form of fungi that most people think of are toadstools, however, fungi can be extremely small and one such tiny example is mould, which people will also be familiar seeing. Because of its small size, it can be easily inhaled as spores travel through the air, usually when disturbed. As such, it becomes a COSHH risk as the hazardous substance can cause illness to those who inhale them.

Some moulds and fungi can be beneficial to human health such as the type that is used to make penicillin, or be deliberately used in food production like blue stilton cheese making. However, there are also some which are harmful to people and result in illness and, in certain instances, death. Conditions such as aspergillosis, commonly known as Farmer's Lung, are caused by mould. In this case mould living in rotten hay causes an allergic reaction in a person's lungs. This is a common hazard for farm workers (hence the name Farmer's Lung), and is a COSHH risk which needs to be taken into consideration, as a farm is a place of work too.

COSHH training courses can provide workers with information on the risks that hazardous substances pose to their bodies, not just from fungi and moulds, but also the numerous different forms of COSHH substances including dusts, mists, gases and liquids which have the potential to cause harm to people or the surrounding environment. This health and safety training, along with the application of common sense and safe working practices will all contribute to the goal of reducing the chances of accidents and illnesses from occurring in the workplace.

COSHH Risks - Limit of Knowledge

As well as short-term risks from hazardous substances (e.g. burning), many COSHH-related illnesses come as a result of long-term exposure to a substance. The cumulative effects of a small amount of exposure many times over months or years can result in a serious condition or even death.

The main problem of determining the cumulative danger of a substance is the length of time needed. The only way to truly know how a particular substance affects a human body after twenty years' of exposure is to observe a person who has been exposed for twenty years! For substances which have been around and people have had exposure to for a long time, these effects can be easily observed in a number of people. However, the introduction of a new product will mean that there is nobody out there who has been exposed to the substance for a long period of time, so the long-term risks and dangers to health will not be known. Predictions can be made based on the particular properties of the substance in question, and the similarity with other hazardous substances, but only time will tell for sure.

Further complicating the issue is that the same substance will affect different people in different ways. Factors such as body mass or age are likely to alter the way the body can cope with the substance. Also, there may not be any logical reason. For example, why do some people suffer smoking-related illnesses after only smoking for a few years, whereas others can smoke every day for their entire life and never suffer a similar condition.

This uncertainty over just how dangerous a substance is makes control difficult. Until more is known about it and the long-term health effects, it is far more preferable to be over-cautious and have too much protection than too little. Although there may be little study and knowledge regarding the specific substance, having managers and workers receive COSHH training will give them a greater understanding of the risks that hazardous substances can pose and how they can enter the body, as well as other important issues like control measures, risk assessments and safe storage of those substances which are hazardous to health and could cause harm to workers, the public or the environment if it were to escape from where it is stored.

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