Handle Hazardous Chemicals? Your Role in Health, Safety & Environmental Protection

Mar 20, 2019 by

 

Today, many companies that use any type of chemicals  are learning to never underestimate their potential dangers to health, safety and the environment. When it comes to the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health (COSHH), it is critical to have proper safeguards in place and people to take charge of these responsibilities. For a case in point we look back to 2011 when at a Scunthorpe steel factory large quantities of Benzole were accidentally released  causing its entire work area to become contaminated. An HSE investigation found that the company had ignored safety procedures and it was consequently ordered to pay £1 million in fines and damages.

Thankfully no-one was injured but if the chemical clouds had ignited the incident could have turned into a major disaster.  The possible environmental impact was particularly significant as the chemical used in production, Benzole, is a hazardous substance which can be very harmful to people and the environment.

Why is Benzole so hazardous?

Benzole is mainly composed of Benzene, a substance which is poisonous to humans, animals, plants and the environment.  This chemical could also contaminate groundwater if it is released into the soil. Plants in Benzene-contaminated soils may slow down growth and even die. When released into the atmosphere, Benzene can interact with other chemicals to form smog.

Benzene is just one of many chemicals UK companies use on a daily basis. Exposure to such hazardous substances is causing thousands of workers to become sick and improper handling and disposal of industrial wastes are also causing irreparable damage to the environment. Aside from chemicals, hazardous substances also include:

  • Fumes
  • Dust
  • Vapours
  • Mists
  • Nanotechnology
  • Gases
  • Germs or biological agents
  • Radioactive substances
  • Lead
  • Asbestos

 

Role of COSSH

In response to these potential dangers, organisations now need employees who are certified in Control of Substances Hazardous to Health (COSHH) and Environmental Protection Procedures.

Companies and workplace covered by COSHH include:

  • Factories
  • Mines
  • Laboratories
  • Farms
  • Shops
  • Offices

The environmental certification also covers:

  • The work-related usage of products such as cleaning agents, paints and chemicals
  • The creation of by-products during work activities like welding fumes
  • Bacteria and fungi growing on metalworking fluids
  • Naturally occurring substances from bulbs, flowers and vegetables that may cause dermatitis

These substances, if not controlled, can result in illnesses ranging from eye to lung infections and even cause death. Companies that ignore workplace safety and environment protection end up paying more in the long run. Millions of pounds are lost annually in replacing trained employees or paying disability benefits alone, for instance.  However, it is important that employers have a legal framework on how to make their workplace safe and environmentally-friendly. This is where the COSHH regulations step in.

8-step COSHH protection plan

In 2002, the ratified COSHH regulations gave employers an 8-step plan designed to help prevent both work-related injuries and environmental damage through:

  1. Conducting regular risk assessments
  • Identifying hazardous substances present in the workplace
  • Considering the impact of the substances on people’s health and the environment
  1. Deciding what precautions to take
  • Checking and adopting controls systems that are working
  • Taking preventive measures against substances that are absorbed by the skin
  1. Preventing or at least controlling exposure to hazardous substances
  • Changing the processing or activity that will no longer require the use or production of the hazardous material
  • Replacing dangerous material with safer alternatives or forms (eg, using pellets instead of powder)
  • Controlling exposure at source (eg, exhaust ventilation)
  • Reducing the number of employees exposed to the chemicals
  • Providing personal protective equipment like face masks, respirators, gloves and protective suits
  • Storing similar wastes together
  1. Ensuring all controls are put in place and observed by everyone
  • Requiring employees to make proper use of control measures and report any defects
  • Ensuring controls are kept in working order
  1. Monitoring all cases of exposure
  • Following occupational exposure standards (OES) – so when a worker is exposed to the substance or inhaled the level of exposure won’t affect their health
  • Avoiding going over the maximum exposure limit (MEL) level which can cause serious effect on workers’ health like cancer or asthma
  • Introducing protective clothing and equipment  if the substance can penetrate exposed skin
  1. Carrying out regular health check-ups to employees who:
  • Are regularly exposed to hazardous materials
  • May develop certain disease or sickness due to constant exposure
  • Are showing early signs and by detecting it before the disease can cause serious damage
  1. Preparing accident and emergency plans and procedures
  • Ensuring that staff know what to do or have escape routes in case of chemical accidents
  1. Ensuring all personnel are well-informed, trained, and supervised
  • Employees need to know the:
    • Names of substances they handle, known risks of exposure to them and access to any necessary safety procedures
    • Primary results of the company risk assessment
    • Protections they need to apply to against the hazardous substances
    • How to properly use personal protective suits and equipment
    • Provide results of health and exposure surveillance while protecting privacy rights
    • Emergency procedures to follow in case an accident happens

Protecting the Environment

Compliance with COSHH is also on a wider environmental level covering Environmental Protection Procedures such as:

  • Observing laws that combat air pollution
  • Storing and disposing of hazardous waste in a manner prescribed by law
  • Complying with statutory nuisance regulations involving fumes, gases, light noise, smoke production and pollution
  • Avoiding any work-related activity that could affect people’s health or cause nuisance to the surrounding neighbourhood
  • Obtaining approval from water companies before letting trade effluent into the sewage system
  • Complying with packaging regulations, ensuring the recycling of certain amounts of waste produced
  • Notifying authorities and taking necessary steps to avoid or minimise damage if business activities caused an environmental risk

In the UK, these laws are in place to protect people’s right to drink clean water and breathe clean air.

Conclusion

Most UK businesses are aware of their social responsibility to protect the environment. For one thing, the financial cost of ignoring the law is simply too high to ignore.

The onus of protecting the environment and safeguarding everyone’s health, however, does not fall on business owners and companies alone. Employees also need to handle and dispose any  hazardous materials in a safe manner and report any violations.

Today, many UK organisations have at least one person overseeing employees’ safety. They also make sure that company operations won’t have a negative impact on the environment. Often, they carry the title of officer, engineer or manager, but their role is to ensure that the company is complying with all safety and environmental requirements.

 

Author Bio:
Simon Bliss is the Managing Director of Principal People, a recruitment consultancy specialising in Health, Safety, and Environment. He’s also the COO of the Juhler Group of Companies which operates in 40 locations across Europe and Asia.

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