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What is COSHH? [Updated 2019]

What is COSHH? [Updated 2019]

You may have heard the acronym COSHH used around the lab before, maybe in relation to risk assessments and employee safety. Whatever your role within the lab, it is your responsibility to understand the implications of COSHH and how a failure to stay on top of these regulations could affect you and your colleagues.


What is COSHH?

COSHH stands for Control of Substances Hazardous to Health. These regulations are by no means limited to work in a lab, they feature in hospitals, schools and really just about any area where workers and members of the public convene. The Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations was updated in 2002 and act as a legal framework designed to help employers protect their staff and members of the wider public from contact with any harmful substances. As well as limiting exposure, the regulations aim to ensure sufficient protection and emergency response equipment is available where necessary.

Developed by the Health and Safety Executive, the regulations cover everything from small offices to large pharmaceutical plants. They cover any and every substance that could cause harm from harmful acids used in labs right the way down to everyday cleaning products. The process of outlining the risks and precautions for each and every substance can seem overwhelming but thankfully HSE has provided industry-specific guidelines to help.

what is coshh

Risk assessments

The first and most reassuring thing to know is that abiding by COSHH regulations can be a very straightforward process. All it takes is a little time and commitment. The first and arguably most important step of the process is to identify all potential hazards during a workplace risk assessment. Risk assessments will differ from workplace to workplace, but the lab manager or other relevant specialist should identify all hazards within the lab and determine the correct control methods to prevent them from causing harm to health.

Once this is in place, then it is the employer or lab manager’s role to ensure that staff are aware of relevant measures and all safety equipment is available and up-to-date. Similarly, full training must be carried out with the staff, and emergency procedures should be put in place to protect against harm.

Failure to stay on top of any of these elements could compromise the welfare of employees or lab workers which in turn could lead to large fines and potential legal repercussions. Fines in the tens of thousands of pounds can be handed out to employers who fail to adequately protect their staff.

Which Substances are ‘Hazardous to Health’?

The list of substances hazardous to health is vast. From chemicals that have clear and obvious risks right the way to seemingly innocent products such as paint or detergent spray. The list is too extensive for us to run through completely but consider items that exist within your lab from the following list:

  • Chemicals
  • Fumes
  • Dust
  • Vapours
  • Mists
  • Gases
  • Biological agents
  • Nanotechnology

A comprehensive COSHH assessment is required for all labs that use potentially hazardous materials but there are a number of substances that are not covered by COSHH. Not because they’re considered without risk, but they have their specific regulations that must be adhered to.

what is coshh

Other substances and their regulations:

  • Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012
  • Control of Lead at Work Regulations 2002
  • Radioactive Substances Act 1993
  • Food and Environment Protection Act 1985 

Adhering to COSHH regs

Thankfully, the regulations exist to help us and are not meant as traps with which to catch us out. The Health and Safety Executive have produced a useful guide to COSHH assessments which can be downloaded for free here or alternatively purchased from the HSE website.

To stay on top of all COSHH regulations, there are a few basic steps that you can implement immediately:

  • Take a look at the specific HSE page for your industry
  • Walk around your workplace and make a note of all substances used in your lab that could cause harm
  • Identify personnel who could be at risk of exposure to substances
  • Provide staff with training related to the substances they regularly use
  • Consider whether it’s possible to replace hazardous substances with less hazardous alternatives. This may not be possible for substances used within the lab but cleaning products for example could be replaced with less toxic alternatives. When looking to make a replacement, consider the following:
  1. Determine whether the original substance or process represents a hazard
  2. Identify potential alternative
  3. Consider potential repercussions of using the alternative
  4. Compare all options
  5. Decide upon the safest option
  6. Introduce the substituted option
  7. Assess and measure its efficacy and safety

Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)

One important way to stay safe within a lab is by utilising PPE. If there are harmful substances and risks within the work environment, then PPE can prove invaluable. Consider which risks are apparent and how certain equipment could mitigate them.

what is coshh

For example, exposure to substances can happen in a number of ways. Respirators can protect against any substances that could be inhaled while protective clothing will come in useful for any substances that could cause harm to skin. Other examples of PPE include

  • Eye protection
  • Protective Gloves
  • Protective Footwear

Consider whether PPE will provide adequate protection whilst allowing the technician to carry out their work to the best of their ability. It’s also worth noting that some chemicals may be harmful but only if they exceed a certain level so aim to be aware of workplace exposure limits.

Staff training

You can take all of the precautions possible, but if your staff are not adequately trained on COSHH procedures and regulations it could all be in vain. Thankfully, there are numerous professionals who can provide adequate safety training for your staff. Training and monitoring should be a necessity within your lab, after all, a fully-trained team and a safety-oriented workplace can help your lab to stay happy, healthy and functional.

For information on how InterFocus can help to keep your lab safe, visit our homepage or contact a member of the team on 01223 894833.

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