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Why Should Hazardous Substances be Stored Properly?

Storing hazardous materials in containers on a shelf

Hazardous substances are those which can affect the internal or external health and wellbeing of a person. The effect can vary greatly, ranging from minor skin irritations to having fatal consequences. A lot of attention is paid to the safe use of hazardous substances, but the correct storage of these items also forms a major component of COSHH (Control of Substances Hazardous to Health) safety.

A hazardous substance can come in a variety of forms; mainly liquids (chemicals, fluids etc.) and dust which is inhaled, but there are a number of different ways in which these hazardous substances can enter the human body and cause damage.

COSHH substances can be used either in the production process, as maintenance products such as oil or cleaning fluids, or as waste/by-products. It is a common misconception that only workers in heavy industry will face COSHH risks, but in reality every workplace will have hazardous substances used or stored on the premises, even if it is just the cleaning products such as bleach.

Despite some COSHH substances being able to cause severe injury, illness or death from just one encounter, for many substances the damage to health will be sustained by a person through exposure over a period of time. Day by day or week by week they may not notice any ill-effects, but the cumulative damage may cause them serious issues in later life.

Whilst using these substances safely and correctly is of major importance, so is the correct storage. Containers need to be suitable in order to be effective (e.g. those substances which give off harmful fumes need to be stored in suitable air-tight containers to prevent the fumes escaping into the air). Many chemicals will have manufacturer's instructions and warning labels which must be strictly followed in order to prevent accidents occurring.

As well as the container, it is good practice to ensure certain chemicals or substances that can react with each other are not stored in the same location if that is practical. There are substances which are fairly harmless on their own, but when combined with others can pose much more of a threat to health.

It is also a good idea keep as low a quantity of harmful substances as possible. Although a certain amount may be needed to ensure the operation of the businesses is not impacted, the less there is of something, the less there is to clear up/contain in the event of an emergency.

Suitable COSHH training will play a key part in the safe storage and use of hazardous substances. Workers who are aware of the dangers, as well as knowing how to use the substances safely and what to do (or not to do!) to avoid accidents, will contribute towards a safe workplace where the chances of COSHH-related ill-health are minimised. Whilst risk can never be completely eliminated, the risks can be minimised to acceptable levels by making sure employees receive sufficient and regular health and safety training, as well as providing appropriate safety equipment for them to use. A COSHH risk assessment should also be performed in order to identify the hazards workers face so that steps can be taken to prevent an accident or incident occurring.

The above is just a very brief introduction to the safe storage of hazardous substances and material. The health and safety legislation and COSHH regulations are quite stringent, and will apply depending on the type of industry your organisation is in (for example, there is separate legislation in the UK for harmful substances such as oil or asbestos).

COSHH Training and Keeping Hazardous Substances Separate

There are many substances used by businesses which are hazardous to health and dangerous to the environment if they were ever to come into contact with people or be accidentally (or deliberately through waste expulsion) released into the surrounding environment. There are also substances which, aside from possibly being hazardous by themselves, can be even more dangerous if they were to come into contact with another substance, for example combining to cause an explosion which can not only cause serious injury or death to those near the source, but can also throw out harmful particulates into the air and allow them to spread over large distances.

In order to prevent them coming into contact with each other, proper separation and segregation must be introduced. Consideration must also be given to how a disaster such as fire or flooding would have an effect upon the separation of substances, or more specifically, how they could come into contact and interact with each other should such a disaster overwhelm or break down the existing segregation methods.

Only those people who have received suitable health and safety training including COSHH training will have the knowledge to be competent to perform such an assessment, as measures such as protective walls, bunds, isolation, properties of container materials and many more can all be utilised in the efforts to keep hazardous substances separate from each other, but it will require a trained and competent person to know which method will be suitable for the different types of substances that are present on site, as what may be acceptable for one may be wholly insufficient for another type. COSHH is no different to other aspects of health and safety in that a person who has little or no knowledge can often make a situation even more dangerous in their attempts to deal with an issue, which is why comprehensive health and safety training is so important. Whilst COSHH training is highly recommended for managers and workers of virtually any company as nearly all will have substances on site which can cause relatively minor harm to persons or the environment, for those who are responsible for the health and safety for a business which has extremely dangerous chemicals or substances present on site effective COSHH training is imperative as the consequences of an accident or incident occurring can be extremely grave for both the health and wellbeing of human life and that of the environment.

As well as COSHH training, the environmental implications of a chemical spill or the release of toxic or otherwise hazardous substances can be great, and can get companies into a lot of trouble with regulators and possibly even criminal charges in the event of severe incidents. For this reason, environmental health and safety qualifications and courses such as the NEBOSH Environmental Certificate are increasing in popularity with more and more managers requiring their employees to hold such a qualification. Environmental issues are also included within the syllabuses of many health and safety courses like the NEBOSH General Certificate and the IOSH Managing Safely to name just two, again highlighting its importance. For more information on environmental training, please see our environmental health and safety section by clicking here.

Fixed Storage Tanks with Enclosed Pipes

A company which utilises hazardous substances will have to store and contain them safely in order to prevent an incident taking place which has the potential to put at risk the health and safety of workers, site visitors, people living and working nearby, plus creatures and plants living in the surrounding environment. A failure to safely store these particular substances can cause significant damage to health, property and the environment, and as such it needs to be given significant attention.

Where hazardous substances are stored, both primary and secondary containment needs to be suitable for the task, as well as properly maintained to ensure that they will perform when/if needed. If either are defective, it could result in an incident which can jeopardise the health and safety of people and the wellbeing of the environment.

The type and integrity of storage tanks, coupled with the methods of getting the substances out of the containers, will to a large extent determine the potential for an accident or incident to occur. Not only should the tank's walls be free from defects such as corrosion and suitable for the substances being stored within it, but attention and maintenance needs to be given to both primary and secondary methods of containment in order to prevent contamination of the land, groundwater or surrounding watercourses.

One of the most common sources of leaks and spillages is from the pipes and openings where the tank contents are meant to be released. These will often be the weakest points and will need particular attention in terms of ensuring that there is no loss of contents. For tanks containing hazardous liquid substances such as oil, it will be much safer for the tank to have an enclosed pipe which takes the contents directly to where it needs to be, rather than a worker having to fill up a portable container like a barrel and transport it across. This can be fraught with danger, with risks including:

  • Spilling or splashing themselves with the substance and having it come into contact with their skin
  • Overflowing from overfilling the portable container and with no bund or secondary container in place the substance seeps into the ground and into groundwater.
  • Failing to shut off the tap or valve completely, causing dripping and the same seepage into the ground as above.
  • An electrostatic charge whilst filling the portable container with the potential for explosions and fires. Additionally, whilst smoking should never be allowed in the proximity of such flammable liquids, it is a risk if an employee does flout the rules and smokes whilst filling the container.
  • The portable container leaking whilst being transported, which not only increases the risk of a major fire if it is a flammable liquid, but can also create a slip risk for those walking in the area afterwards.
  • A risk of fire or explosion if the portable tank is left near a heat source or open flame before it is taken to its final destination.

COSHH Training Options:

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Bespoke COSHH training programme


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