Phil Grace says embracing the updated hazardous substance regulations may avoid further unnecessary employee illness

' With 7,000 new cases of work-related asthma per year, plus 3,000 additional cases of dermatitis, it is clear the British industry is not addressing the problem of exposure to hazardous substances.

From April this year, the existing Control of Substances Hazardous to Health (COSHH) Regulations 2004 were changed to focus on good practice and, hopefully, clarify what had been a poorly understood and implemented piece of legislation.

But why has this been so?

Among businesses, there seems to be a feeling that the only people qualified to understand the hazards arising from chemical substances are chemists.

As with much risk management, a common sense approach is the best starting point. For example, an engineering business carrying out welding should be questioning a) what substances are being released in the process and, b) why are my eyes stinging and what is that metallic taste in my mouth?

The above sensations could well be caused by ozone and once that is identified, the business should be thinking about how to tackle the problem.

Brokers, also, should appreciate the risks associated with hazardous substances and be advising their clients. A broker may be aware that a firm making fibreglass boats uses chemicals; but does he appreciate that a local baker could be causing asthma in his employees due to lack of flour dust control in the production process?

Less obvious risk
A lot of smaller businesses still employ manual work as opposed to automation, which may increase the risk of exposure.

And they shouldn't just be considering the obvious cases - such as a firm using substances in drums and bottles - but also the less obvious ones, such as a furniture maker using potentially hazardous African hardwoods to make coffee tables.

Hazardous substances, when used incorrectly, can cause skin disease, lung diseases such as asthma, or more serious diseases such as cancer, dependent on exposure.

Some diseases arise from long-term repeated exposures, but others from brief or low levels of exposure. People can become sensitised to a substance, meaning even minor exposure in future can trigger the condition, therefore affecting the employment prospects of those affected.

Ultimately, the new regulations are aimed at simplifying the approach to controlling workplace exposure to chemicals. They provide clear principles of good practice designed to help firms with the practicalities of using hazardous substances. IT

' Phil Grace is casualty risk manager at Norwich Union

COSHH guidance: good practice principles for brokers and clients to consider

1. Design and operate processes to minimise the release of substances. Instead of using a dusty powder, buy the material in pellet form or dissolved in liquid. For example, dyes for fabric dyeing can now bought pre-mixed rather than in powder form.

2. Exposure to substances involves more than simply breathing in a dust or vapour. Substances can be absorbed through the skin and, if deposited on the hands, it is possible to ingest them. For example, smoking has been a significant route of entry and ingestion for hazardous substances. In any instance where skin exposure might be a problem, adequate hand washing facilities should be provided.

3. Use appropriate and effective measures to control hazardous substances. If a substance is very toxic, ideally, you should stop using it. If a substance is likely to cause cancer, change the process or find an alternative substance. For example, it is worth avoiding the use of certain types of adhesive owing to their highly toxic effects on skin. Eliminating the substance is the best method of control. If not, can it be replaced with something less hazardous? Companies are now using safe - and often biodegradable - alternatives to de-greasing solvents. If a substance is not highly toxic then at least take sensible steps to reduce its presence in the atmosphere.

4. Personal protective equipment should be used only as a last resort. It is too easy to provide someone with a dust mask or a pair of gloves and think the employer's responsibility has been met. Engineering and mechanical controls should always be used to stop the spread of substances into the atmosphere in the first place. For example, some hardwoods used in furniture-making generate a dust that can cause nasal cancer. It is not appropriate to give workers dust masks to wear every day. It is better to tackle the problem at source and seek to minimise exposure by using extraction equipment around the machine.

5. Any control measures must be checked on a regular basis, such as fans to extract wood dust.

6. Employers have a responsibility to provide training and instruction. Staff have a right to know what they are exposed to in their workplace and the control measures that are in place, as well as a legal duty to co-operate and use such controls.

The Health and Safety Executive's COSHH Essentials website at www.hse.gov.uk/coshh/will become a powerful source of advice, offering task-specific control tips, guidance sheets for dusts and fumes and information for specific industries. It is designed for small businessmen, without blinding them with science.