• Dale Allen

How to Identify Hazardous Substances in the Workplace

Updated: May 4

It will come as no surprise that the majority of workplaces there are in the world use chemicals, or somehow produce other hazardous substances.

Chemical safety is one of the biggest hurdles business' face and it becomes more complicated as the size of your workplace grows.

Chemicals can be very dangerous, but they also enable us to create many things we would never have been able to, otherwise. Hazardous substances created through your work processes, however, are just dangerous to your health and sometimes the environment, too.

Some of them will cause acute health problems which will seem to strike immediately, while others will creep up on you over time, causing serious chronic health conditions.

It's because of theses potential health problems that you need to be able to identify the hazardous substances in your workplace.

Having an understanding of the chemicals and other hazardous substances you use, or produce, and how they can affect the health of your employees is key to protecting them.

On top of the substances that, essentially, poison your workers, there are physicochemical hazards. These types of hazards are the ones that can damage your environment, including your workplace. Think explosions and fires, or fumes and vapours escaping into the outside air.

Identifying the hazardous substances in your workplace

To begin working out what chemical hazards present themselves in your workplace, you first need to identify which chemicals you buy and use every day.

You can easily do this by checking your stock lists and invoices, but it's very important that you also walk around your workplace and actually pinpoint the location of each and every one of the chemicals in use.

Check their product labels and source their safety data sheet, which you should have been sent when you made the purchase.

Once you're aware of each and every chemical you also need to identify any hazardous substances that you might create through any of your work activities. These include:

  • Dusts,

  • Fumes,

  • Vapours,

  • Fibres,

  • Biological agents,

  • Nano-particles.

When you have identified every hazardous substance in your workplace you need to make a list of them all. The list should contain information pertaining to the identify of the substance, what it is used for, the storage location and transport information.

Identifying the hazards presented by your hazardous substances

Chemicals and other hazardous substances can do some nasty things to the human body, and these hazards need eliminating, or at the very least controlling so that your workers remain safe when carrying out their duties.

You already have a list of all of the chemicals you purposefully use and the hazardous substances that your work produces as by-products.

Now, take that list and identify each and every way that substance can enter the human body, or the environment, and cause harm.

Much of this information can be found on the safety data sheet specific to the substance you are looking at. Each SDS must contain information on the hazards, their identification and toxicological information.

It's important to understand that each hazardous substance is likely to have more than one hazard associated with it, depending on what it is used for or produced through.

For example:

Solvents used for cleansing a work station can cause serious long-term respiratory health problems, or even death, when breathed in. They can cause problems with your eyes and skin. Solvent fumes are also known to have knocked workers unconscious, causing them to make operational errors or even die by falling from height.

Your workplace may have specific needs, but you need to be able to identify each and every single one of the hazards presented by hazardous substances to be able to properly control them and ensure the protection of your workers.

Identifying the physicochemical hazards presented in your workplace

A clear and robust chemical safety culture also takes into account the dangers presented by physicochemical hazards.

These are the hazards that are presented by substances more likely to explode, corrode, oxidise, or burn. They're the substances which can cause serious problems not only to your health, but to your immediate area and the environment as a whole.

Identifying the physicochemical hazards is a very similar process to that of identifying substance hazards. You need to include information on the way you use, handle and store your chemicals.

It's also important to walk around your workplace. Talk to your workers and their supervisors. Talk to their line staff and review their standard operating procedures.

Here are examples of questions you can ask to ascertain phyicochemical hazards:

  • Are the chemicals you work with stored on the workbench?

  • Are the chemicals you use stored properly, in secure safety cabinets and properly segregated?

  • Are you and your team fully trained to use your personal protective equipment?

  • Do you or your team find, or leave out, empty and unlabeled chemical containers?

  • Is anyone unauthorised able to access the chemicals you use?

  • Are there emergency wash stations? Are your workers aware of them, and have they been trained how to use them?

  • Are there sources of ignition close to your workstation?

Employing tried and tested hazard identification and risk control methods

Hazardous substances, and the hazards they present are named such because they are, in fact, very dangerous. They present some unique hazards that you need to control for the protection of your workers.

So, it's vitally important that you follow a methodology when employing hazard identification and risk control. These substances, and the hazards they present, can be complex things that require time to figure out. They require studying to ensure the right control measures are implemented.

Confused about your responsibilities under COSHH? Take the new COSHH Risk Assessor Certification™. It's completely free and will give you a solid understanding of your responsibilities under the regulations.


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