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Better safe than sorry

Bob Towse offers advice on complying with the COSHH Regulations and looks at how business can benefit from the use of a COSHH management system
The control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations 2002 (COSHH) places requirements on employers to identify potential hazards in the workplace and provides health and safety guidance for employers and employees to follow while working.

There were 171 fatalities and 26,000 major injuries reported in the workplace in 2010/11. Of the main industrial sectors, construction had the highest fatality rate, accounting for 50 of the total - a rise in construction related deaths for the first time in four years that has triggered surprise safety checks on building sites across Britain.

But this is just the tip of the iceberg, with many more people coming into contact with substances every day that can have a major effect on their longterm health.

Many employers and employees are unaware of the potential dangers of hazardous substances, how to control their exposure and how to deal with any unplanned contamination. When we think of workplace hazards, we immediately think of chemicals; however, the simplest tasks can pose risks. Sweeping up in a dusty room can make dust airborne, which is then inhaled - this is a COSHH issue.

COSHH applies to every company with employees, but even self employed sole traders are affected in part if they take hazardous materials to other people's premises.

The regulations set general requirements for businesses to protect employees by risk assessment, control of exposure, health surveillance and incident planning. Employers must produce method statements to ensure workers follow the correct procedures, control how the product is used and monitor and reduce its risks.

Failure to protect your workforce during any activity that is included in the COSHH Regulations carries serious implications. Contravention of the provisions of COSHH is a criminal offence that can lead to prosecution under the regulations or the Health and Safety at Work Act, which can attract an unlimited fine and lead to subsequent civil claims for damages. In 2010/2011, the Health & Safety Executive (HSE) prosecuted 551 cases, an increase of nine per cent on the previous year. This resulted in 517 convictions and fines of £18.6 million, averaging £35,938 per case - over double the cost per case compared to those in 2009/10.

Besides adhering to the law, compliance with COSHH offers a strong moral case. Using chemicals and other hazardous substances at work can put employees' health at risk, causing diseases, such as asthma or dermatitis, or even life-threatening conditions, like cancer. As a result of improved safety practices and procedures, COSHH reduces loss of business productivity from accidents or illness.

One important but easy way to meet the COSHH Regulations is to use a COSHH management system. These systems help simplify and manage the compliance process, providing advice on the key principles of COSHH and guiding employers through the assessments.

B&ES Publications, the publishing division of the Building and Engineering Services Association (formally the HVCA), offers an online COSHH Management System that provides a reference resource for contractors, engineers, health and safety officers and all those responsible for complying with COSHH.

The system is dedicated to the hvacr industry and explains the risks and solutions for products commonly used in the field/sector.

Covering hundreds of hazardous substances, including chemicals, fumes, dusts, vapours, mists, gases and biological agents (germs), the B&ES COSHH Management System features a fully automated provision of over 400 hvacr sector specific COSHH assessments and data sheets in a ready to use, print friendly, redistributable format. The web based system ensures assessments are always up to date and provides email notification of any assessment changes.

The system helps businesses improve productivity by using more effective controls and helps employees understand and comply with health and safety requirements. It is also an essential tool for business when tendering for valuable contracts, and assists users who need to demonstrate that they meet the requirements of the Construction (Design and Management) Regulations 2007.

COSHH is more than just a paperwork exercise - in extreme terms, lives and your business' future may depend on it. Anyone interested in the B&ES Publications COSHH Management System can view the website and examples of assessments by visiting www.b-escoshh.co.uk. Online access is paid for by subscription.

//The author is head of technical and safety at B&ES//

25 May 2012

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