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What is COSHH and what are my responsibilities as an employer?

What is COSHH and what are my responsibilities as an employer?

COSHH stands for the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health.  Many organisations use substances that can potentially cause harm to their employees. Thousands of workers each year develop conditions such as cancer, lung diseases (i.e. asthma) and skin diseases (such as dermatitis) due to substances they have come into contact with at work. This costs many millions of pounds to industry, society and individuals.

While those working in industries such as construction, heavy engineering and manufacturing may immediately spring to mind, there are many other industries and roles which may be at risk and which might not be so obvious. Substances such as beauty products, paints, glues, detergents, flowers and ink can all potentially be harmful.

Under the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations 2002, employers need to either prevent or reduce their employee’s exposure to substances that are hazardous to their health.

What substances are covered?

The following substances are all covered:

  • chemicals
  • fumes
  • dusts
  • vapours
  • mists
  • nanotechnology
  • gases and asphyxiating gases
  • biological agents (germs).

Staff can be exposed to these substances via breathing them in, contact with the skin or eyes, injection/puncture to the skin and swallowing.

What do employers need to do?

Employers need to prevent exposure to these substances, where possible. Where this is not possible, the exposure needs to be controlled.

This starts with carrying out a risk assessment. If you have five or more employees you must record your risk assessment, although it is good practice to do so regardless. The risk assessment involves looking at what substances there are in the workplace, how harmful they may be to health and what jobs or tasks lead to exposure. More advice on carrying out a risk assessment can be found on

Where substances that are harmful to health are found, the first step is to consider if exposure can be prevented. This could be done by substituting the substance for another, using a safer form of the substance (EG. powder instead of liquid), or changing the process or task.

If preventive measures have taken place and risks still remain, the next step is controlling the exposure. This can be done by using control equipment, such as ventilation, personal protective equipment (PPE), respiratory protective equipment (RPE), spillage capture, and decontamination.

Control procedures can also be introduced or amended. These include ways of working, training, maintenance and operating procedures. More information about control procedures can be found at

Once control measures are in place, these need to be monitored. You need to ensure that such measures are adequate, for example, that the equipment is working, that employees have been given the appropriate training, that working practices are fit for purpose and that employees are following the correct procedures.

Health surveillance

Where staff are at risk, health surveillance should be carried out. Health surveillance is a system of ongoing health checks. The HSE states that it should be carried out when:

  • there is a condition associated with the substance in use (EG. asthma, dermatitis, cancers);
  • it is possible to detect the disease or adverse change and reduce the risk of further harm;
  • the conditions in the workplace make it likely that the disease will appear.

Health surveillance may involve a variety of assessments including, but not limited to:

  • hearing tests (audiometry)
  • lung-function tests (spirometry)
  • skin assessments
  • hand arm vibration assessments (HAVS) up to Tier 4
  • vision screening
  • driving assessments.

Find out more about health surveillance