Breathing in hazardous substances at work can have a serious impact on employee health – especially in terms of respiratory diseases. When workers are exposed to substances that are corrosive, irritant, toxic or harmful, it can cause a number of serious medical conditions including asthma and diseases of the lungs and airways.
In the UK, legislation known as COSHH (Control of Substances Hazardous to Health 2002) governs how employers must protect the workforce from the dangers of breathing in hazardous substances. They must take the appropriate precautions, including protective equipment, to minimise the risks to employee wellbeing.
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What are the most common breathing hazards?
Work activities including grinding, cutting, spraying, soldering, welding, brushing and cleaning can create hazardous substances that can impact our health.
The substances include gases such as carbon monoxide and chlorine; epoxy or paint sprays; acid mists; fumes from soldering, welding, galvanising and hot rubber processes; and vapours from solvents, paints and inks.
Other hazardous substances include cleaning chemicals; degreasing solvents; and powder, dust and paste from cement, wood, flour, metal, rubber, grain and stone.
Employees with pre-existing health conditions including asthma are at greater risk. In addition, people can become more sensitive to the substances they work with over time, increasing the likelihood of health problems further down the line.
Inhaling the dust, fumes and other substances created by workplace processes can cause a range of breathing problems and other diseases. The most serious include respiratory issues, asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, known as COPD. It can also cause various serious diseases of the lungs and airways such as bronchitis, obstruction of the airways and even lung cancer.
What are employers’ legal obligations?
The COSHH legislation provides a framework of legal requirements to protect workers’ health. Employers must carry out a risk assessment to ascertain the potential impact of workplace activities.
They must determine how to prevent or minimise the risks by taking precautions, ensuring the protective measures are maintained over time. Workers should be properly informed and trained about the hazards and the necessary precautions.
The employer must also monitor employee exposure to hazardous substances, including health checks when appropriate. Plans should be in place in case of an emergency.
What precautions and protective equipment can be used?
The use of respiratory protective equipment is required in workplaces where hazardous substances are used. It is provided in many forms including protective hoods, masks, visors and helmets.
Workplaces also use equipment such as downdraught benches to extract fumes and dust from the air to create a safer working environment.
AirBench downdraught benches have built-in extractor systems in each self-contained workbench. Employees can work safely on the surface, while any dust and fumes are drawn downwards into the internal filters. Clean air is circulated back into the room.
Downdraught benches are particularly useful and convenient because they don’t require any installation. Simply plug them in, turn them on and you can start work immediately!
What are the penalties for non-compliance with COSHH?
Employers in the UK who fail to comply with workplace health and safety legislation face stiff penalties imposed by the Health and Safety Executive.
Negligence can have serious consequences for both individual employees and the business as a whole. While the workforce can suffer life-changing health problems as a result, the penalties for an organisation can include fines, disqualification and even imprisonment for the owners.