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Spillages of Hazardous Substances

Oil leaked onto the ground

The spillage or accidental escaping of hazardous substances into the surrounding environment can be a potentially devastating, damaging and deadly occurrence for all living creatures and organisms, including humans. When released into the atmosphere or finding its way into watercourses such as streams or rivers, these contaminants can travel and adversely affect great areas, and subsequently, a large number of life forms.

This means that the prevention of spillages and accidental releases must be a key priority for any business, and particularly those which deal with especially dangerous and hazardous substances. There will be a great need for thorough health and safety training including frequent refresher courses, not to mention training on relevant specific topics such as COSHH training and permit to work systems.

It is essential that persons with suitable knowledge and are competent at doing so carry out environmental and COSHH risk assessments to determine the potential risks that are present with regards to environmental damage, either through the organisation's normal operations or in the event of an emergency or accident taking place.

Along with training and the resulting knowledge gained by a person, regular inspections of machinery, equipment, pipe work, storage areas and the like are needed to ensure that poor maintenance is not responsible for a spillage occurring. Such a simple and easily remedied situation like a worn and easily replaceable part can be the difference between a major environmental and potentially lethal incident taking place or not.

COSHH Health and Safety: Over-Filling Containers

There are many risks to health and safety posed by hazardous substances, just as there are many different ways in which these substances can enter a person's body. These COSHH dangers as they are also known, in reference to the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health regulations, will vary tremendously from industry to industry, and even different workplaces within the same industry, as the danger to health will depend greatly upon factors such as:

  • The exact type of substance which workers are exposed to, as some are more dangerous than others
  • The length of time for which exposure takes place, both short-term and long-term
  • The safety measures and controls which are in place to prevent harm from occurring
  • The level of knowledge that workers have from health and safety training and experience acquired

As mentioned in the last bullet point above, being suitably trained will go a long way in enabling workers to avoid coming to harm as a result of exposure to hazardous substances. Completing COSHH training and other health and safety courses, particularly at the beginning of their career in working in such an environment, will provide workers with the necessary knowledge required to avoid putting themselves or others in danger from hazardous substances.

Storage of Hazardous Substances

It is not only the handling or usage of hazardous substances which poses a danger. Another likely cause of danger comes in the form of how the substances themselves are stored on the premises when they are not being used.

One of the most prevalent COSHH dangers associated with storage involves storing two or more substances in close proximity which can be highly dangerous and volatile when combined together. This can happen any time, such as being placed too near to each other or one falling off a top shelf onto the other below, but also often occurs when there is an emergency such as a fire, or a natural disaster such as a flood. Suitable precautions need to be taken to prevent this from happening and making an emergency situation worse, not to mention a comprehensive action plan to deal quickly and efficiently with any emergency which unfolds to lessen the negative impact on both people's health and that of the environment.

The Danger of Over-Filling Containers

Under the topic of safe storage, employees must also be wary of and avoid over-filling storage containers. Putting too much into a container creates the very real risk of the substance leaking and escaping from the container and posing a threat to the health and safety of workers and indeed anyone who happens to be in the vicinity. It can also spill over and run down the sides and onto the floor, where it can create a fire hazard if it is a flammable substance such as petrol or oil.

Storage containers can sometimes be expensive, particularly for highly dangerous chemicals or gases, and there may be a temptation by workers or even an order from managers themselves, to fill containers as much as possible in order to save money through not having to purchase any more containers.

It can also happen accidentally, if workers do not pay sufficient attention as they are filling containers, or indeed if they have not been trained and informed of just what the safe maximum filling level actually is.

Why Water Can Be Dangerous When Hazardous Substances are Involved

We have seen in the article "Why Should Hazardous Substances be Stored Properly?" how important it is for both the health and safety of people and that of the environment to keep certain types of hazardous substances separated and segregated in order to prevent them mixing and reacting with each other, as this could lead to an explosion or creation of even more toxic gases.

However what is often overlooked or not considered is that as well as other harmful chemicals, plain water can also cause severe and dangerous reactions with certain substances. Examples include certain acids which will result in poisonous gases such as hydrogen sulphide, and alkali metals like sodium, potassium and caesium (

There is therefore a risk to people's health and safety if these types of materials are present on site and somehow come into contact with water. This could occur through flooding, and is obviously a particular risk if the storage facilities are located next to a watercourse such as a lake or river.

Another common way for these materials to come into contact with water is when a fire breaks out and water is used to extinguish the flames. The resulting explosion or release of poisonous gas can put the lives and wellbeing of those tackling the blaze in jeopardy. Whilst staff members should all have received specific COSHH training and health and safety training which makes them thoroughly aware of the potential dangers regarding these dangerous materials which are present on the site, it may be the case that external fire fighters who come in to fight the fire are not aware of what materials are present.

So whilst the mixing and reactions of two or more different types of hazardous chemicals can be dangerous, it must also be remembered that for some types of materials even a reaction with water, one of the most stable and benign of substances, can result in a potentially life-threatening situation.

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