COSHH applies to every industry, including construction. The Control of Substances Hazardous to Health (COSHH) Regulations are a well-known set of regulations, however many workplaces fail to adequately assess the risks from exposure to hazardous substances.
Why is this?
Well often because the hazardous substances are not what we would class as dangerous chemicals, a sniff or a splash is not going to lead to instant death, and the substances are part of everyday use.
If you fall off a roof or get electrocuted, you could die. No one wants a death on their construction site, so those hazards get a lot of attention. And so they should. But did you know that it is estimated over 600 people die each year from past exposure to silica dust? Health risks (especially hazardous substances) are the biggest killer in construction. These deaths just take longer to happen.
It is estimated that past exposures in the construction sector annually cause over 5,000 occupational cancer cases and approximately 3,700 deaths.
You might use some substances for weeks or even years without any health concerns at all. Or, you might start to notice warning signs or problems. Like trouble breathing, a cough you can't shake off, a rash or skin problems that gradually get worse. But, you don't really know the cause or put it down to something else.
In short, the risks are overlooked.
But what could be the consequences of overlooking these regulations?
Firstly, and most obviously, failing to assess the risks from hazardous substances in the workplace is a breach of the regulations that could lead to enforcement action. Secondly, the regulations are in force to protect workers from the effects of exposure to hazardous substances. So if you fail to assess and control the risks, the health of your workforce could suffer as a consequence.
Some COSHH failures in construction include:
COSHH failures are bad for you, bad for your business, and bad for your team. Time off sick, fines, breaches, compensation and loss of productivity and reputation can all result from failing to manage hazardous substances at work.
Construction is a high-risk industry. A lot of focus is put onto the serious safety hazards (like work at height), and health hazards (like asbestos). While asbestos is a hazardous substance, it has its own regulations, so asbestos is not covered under COSHH.
But asbestos isn't the only hazardous substance you will come across in construction. Common hazardous substances on construction sites can include fuels, cement, paints and cleaning substances. These substances are in use regularly and without much alarm. But the above substances should all be COSHH assessed, and exposure controlled to minimise the risk to employees that use them. In fact, there are a wide range of hazardous substances used in construction work, here's an example of some common ones:
For example, cement is a common building material used by trades across the construction industry. But it is also a hazardous substance. Short term exposure to cement can lead to irritant dermatitis. The cement particles, often mixed with aggregates, abrade the skin causing irritation. Long term skin exposure to cement can result in dermatitis, which over time can become extremely painful. Once the skin has become sensitised any further exposure can result in severe outbreaks and worsening of the condition.
You can often spot if a substance you buy is hazardous, from the hazard symbol on its packaging. Under COSHH, you shouldn't just think about the substances you use, but also those you produce.
Silica dust is one of our top 5 health risks, and construction works are one of the most at-risk groups from this naturally occurring substance. Drilling or cutting concrete, stone and other building materials? You are probably producing silica dust.
Wood dust is another substance that is regularly created during construction activities, particularly carpentry and joinery work. Exposure to wood dust can lead to health issues including asthma and sometimes cancer.
Now we know that COSHH applies to construction work and some of the substances that it covers. But how do you comply with COSHH, and avoid COSHH failures?
Get more details on the 9 ways to comply with COSHH.
You should always start by identifying the hazardous substances used within your workplace. Once you know what substances you are dealing with, you can start planning how to control the risks. We've covered some common examples in this blog post, but of course, each construction project and activity is different. Look at what hazardous substances you use and produce in your work.
Find out more about how to identify COSHH substances in your workplace in what substances does COSHH cover?
As with all hazardous substances, a COSHH assessment should be undertaken, and this should be based on the activity and the people at risk. COSHH assessments are a legal requirement, and they will also help you to assess the risk and reduce harm.
Appropriate controls should then be implemented to minimise exposure and control the risks. Don't just rely on personal protective equipment (PPE). PPE is important, but it is also the last line of defence and only protects one user at a time.
Often, you will need to control the risks using a combination of safety measures.
Control measures are always a mixture of equipment and ways of working to reduce exposure. The right combination is crucial.
For example, providing welfare facilities, enforcing good hygiene practice, using barrier creams and wearing suitable clothing can all help to protect the skin from exposure to cement particles.
For inhalation exposure to hazardous dust and fumes, ventilation, enclosures, extraction, work methods and PPE can all be used to control the hazard.
Keep a COSHH register for any substances hazardous to health and make sure data sheets and COSHH assessments are carried out for these substances and adequate control measures are in place.
Need help with COSHH? Start your COSHH register today by downloading our free template to help you identify the hazardous substances in use, and download COSHH assessment templates for your work activities.