Dangerous substances – meaning any liquid, gas or solid that poses a risk to workers’ health or safety – can be found in nearly all workplaces. Across Europe, millions of workers come into contact with chemical and biological agents that can harm them.
According to recent research, 19 % of EU workers report being exposed to toxic vapours for a quarter or more of their working time, while 15 % of workers have to handle dangerous substances as part of their daily work.
If the risks of using dangerous substances are not properly managed, workers’ health can be harmed in a variety of ways, with effects ranging from mild eye and skin irritations to asthma, reproductive problems and birth defects, and cancer. This can be through a single short exposure, or multiple exposures and long-term accumulation of substances in the body.
By law, employers in the EU must protect their workers from being harmed by dangerous substances in the workplace. Employers must carry out risk assessments, and act on them. Legislation also governs the identification and labelling of the thousands of different substances that are registered in the EU market.
Reducing the risks of working with dangerous substances is not just a moral and legal imperative – there is a strong business case for it as well. Organisations can suffer when things go wrong, – through lost productivity, and increased liability to prosecution and claims for compensation -, as well as workers.
Fortunately, a large amount of guidance is available for employers and workers in dealing with dangerous substances. And across Europe, there are many examples of good practice to learn from. By taking appropriate action, workers can be kept safe while using dangerous substances.
Employers are also obliged to provide workers with information on the risks posed by hazardous substances, and training in how to use them safely. Regulations apply both to marketed products and to the waste and by-products resulting from production processes.
Where the risks to workers are not prevented, control measures should be applied to remove or reduce the risks to workers’ health. The following control hierarchy should be followed:
- Replace dangerous substances, particularly when safer alternatives are available.
- Design work processes and controls, and use adequate equipment and materials to reduce the release of dangerous substances.
- Apply collective protection measures at the source of the risk, such as ventilation and appropriate organisational measures.
- Apply individual protection measures including using personal protective equipment (PPE). By law this is the last resort, and should only occur where exposure cannot be adequately controlled by other means. Where PPE is given to workers, they must be trained in its use.
The number of workers being exposed should be reduced to a minimum, along with duration and intensity of exposure and the amount of dangerous substances used. Appropriate hygiene measures should also be adopted.
For many, but not all chemical products, legislation also establishes standards on classification and labelling, so that users can understand the substances they are dealing with. EU law covers the provision of clear, standardised safety labels, risk symbols, and Safety Data Sheets (which chemical manufacturers and suppliers must provide, giving information on the properties of substances, the hazards associated with them, and guidance on storage, handling, protection etc).
For some products, such as pharmaceuticals (e.g. cytostatic drugs) or cosmetics (e.g. hairdressing products), safety data sheets do not have to be provided by suppliers.
Even where SDS are available, more information might be needed in some cases. It is then necessary to:
- use other sources (technical documentation, instructions for use, technical and scientific reference papers and journals);
- ask manufacturers and suppliers;
- consult preventive services;
- seek advice from professional organisations (trade associations, chambers of commerce, trade unions, social security and others);
- contact the relevant authorities.
Includes material under Copyright 1998-2013 European Agency for Safety and Health at Work
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