Pretty much every workplace will use chemicals of some kind. These can range from industrial process chemicals right down to kitchen cleaners or office antibacterial wipes.
So, what exactly is a ‘chemical’ and is it the same thing as a substance, compound, element or material? For the purposes of managing safety and health in your workplace, these five things are all the same – what you call the thing doesn’t change what you have to do to manage it.
Just to clear up one common point of confusion before we continue – the law in the UK calls these things ‘substances’ (as in The Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations, usually called COSHH), but the latest UK labelling system calls them ‘chemicals’ (as in the Globally Harmonised System of Classification and Labelling of Chemicals – click on the image for our free Factsheet on this subject). As I’ve said, try not to worry about this – it’s all the same thing really! I’ll use ‘chemical’ from here on in, simply because that’s what most people use.
When considering chemicals in the workplace, you should include anything – solid, liquid or gas – which might be able to get inside people or out into the environment. Many chemicals will be harmless of course, but many more won’t be, and the way in which they cause harm can be very different from one another.
As far as people are concerned, the chemical might get in through swallowing, breathing in, absorbing through the skin or eyes, or injecting directly into the body tissues and bloodstream. For the environment, the chemical might enter the air, soil, ditches, streams, lakes, rivers, surface water drains (which eventually lead into ditches, streams, lakes and rivers anyway…) or foul water drains (which lead to your local sewage treatment works).
The hazard that a particular chemical represents in your workplace depends on the answers to two key questions:
1 – What is the chemical?
2 – What are you going to do with it?
If you want to control your chemical risks, you’ll need to understand both of these things well.
The first question is easy to answer – get a Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) from your supplier or the manufacturer. They’re legally obliged to give this to you on request and it will tell you everything you need to know about the chemical. If you’re not sure how to interpret an MSDS, ask a professional to train you – you can’t effectively manage chemicals yourself without being able to do this!
Unfortunately, many organisations stop at the first question and think they are covered. They simply obtain an MSDS and put it on file in the office. If the chemical spills down the drain or gets into someones eye for example, they just pull out the MSDS and then decide what to do.
Of course, if you’ve read this far, you’re probably sensible enough to realise you will need to be a lot more proactive than that… Once you’ve lost control of the chemical, it’s too late – the damage is done. Whether this means paying heavy fines to clean up a pollution incident or facing prosecution and a personal injury claim for life changing eye damage, it will cost you dearly.
So, to answer the second question, here are ten things you should be doing to assess and manage chemicals in your workplace:
1 – Refer to your MSDS – as already mentioned, you should have an MSDS on hand for every chemical on site, no matter how safe you think it is. Make sure you have the current version too, because ingredients often change and MSDS’s are updated as a result. Read it and understand the key points.
2 – Carry out a Risk Assessment – refer to the MSDS and carry out a COSHH risk assessment for every chemical on site. This is where you really start getting into the ‘what are you going to do with it’ question. You need to look at the hazards listed in the MSDS and then carefully think about how that relates to the way you use, store and move the chemical on your site. It’s best to steer clear of the boilerplate COSHH assessments available on-line – they are unlikely to accurately reflect your individual site conditions or management systems. They are an easy, some might say lazy, option, but will not be as effective as a bespoke assessment for your site. Having a good understanding of the quantities involved is also important – compare a 500 ml bottle of White Spirit with a 5,000 litre dip tank – same chemical but very different risks. If you don’t have the knowledge and training to carry out a COSHH assessment, always seek professional advice – the consequences of getting it wrong can be significant.
3 – Reduce Your Risk – now you understand your risk properly, it’s time to reduce it. Start with the highest-risk chemical first and work down from there. Follow the list below in order, don’t make the classic mistake of reaching for the personal protective equipment (PPE) catalogue first!
- Can you avoid using the chemical entirely, e.g. choose water based rather than solvent based cleaners?
- Can you use a safer process, e.g. brush-on paint rather than spray on; vacuum up dusts rather than sweeping them?
- Can you substitute the chemical for a safer one? E.g. use a solvent with a lower amount of volatile organic compounds (VOC), resulting in less lung risk and environmental damage?
- Can you substitute the form of the chemical for a safer one, e.g. pellets rather than powders?
- Can you use safety equipment to minimise the risk, e.g. water supresssion for stone cutting or local exhaust ventilation (LEV, usually called ‘extraction’) for wood cutting and sanding?
- Can you put administrative controls in place? This category would include things like information and training, safety signage and supervision. These are ‘soft’ controls and rely on human beings doing exactly what they are told, every time – it’s isn’t reliable therefore!
- Can you use PPE? It’s a last resort, yes, but it’s also likely you will need to use it for some of your tasks, some of the time. Make sure it’s the right type, fitted properly, kept clean and replaced when needed.
4 – Sort out Your Storage – make sure you store your chemicals in the right way. Think about the location, what will happen if they leak (don’t assume they never will) and who should or shouldn’t have access to them.
5 – Move Your Chemicals Safely – think about how you will move your chemicals safely. You should be able to move them without creating any human or environmental harm. Use proper trolleys, carriers or cages. Secure larger containers properly (e.g. bulk drums or gas bottles).
6 – Use your Chemicals Safely – by now, you should have an MSDS, a decent COSHH risk assessment and probably some instructions on / in the packaging too. Make sure you read them, understand them and of course – follow them!
7 – Label your Containers and Decant Properly – you’ve looked at storage already, but make sure you check your containers too. The container that the chemical comes in is probably fine, but if you buy in bulk and decant into smaller containers, or tip your chemical into tins, pots or buckets, make sure they are made of the right material and are fit to do the job you intended them too. All the containers you use should have a copy of the manufacturers Product Label on it (labels are also explained in our free Factsheet).
8 – Don’t Forget the Environment – make sure you include environmental damage in all of your management plans. Its easy to overlook, especially if you’re looking at chemicals which you already know are hazardous to people – you might fixate on that alone.
9 – Sort out Your Training – it should go without saying, but everyone who risk assesses chemicals, everyone who moves, stores or uses chemicals, and everyone who supervises people that do these things, should be competent. What this means will depend on the chemical and what they do with it, but everyone involved should know what they are doing – this includes in an emergency, as well as when things are going to plan.
10 – Plan for Spillages – last but no means least, have you planned for a breakdown in your arrangements? The biggest harm usually happens when things go wrong of course, so try to foresee what might go wrong and plan for it. Ask yourself what you would do if that oil drum spilt in the yard, or if that paint flicked into a workers eye. If you have planned properly, it hopefully won’t happen of course, but in any system where people, machinery or technology are involved, things can and do occasionally go wrong. Be ready for it.
Director, Haysman Consulting Limited
Chartered Safety and Health Practitioner