Chemical and Biological Health Hazards and Control

Chemical and biological hazards in the workplace are risks that must be effectively managed by employers. The use of chemicals is widespread in many industries and substances that can cause physical harm (chemical hazards) or illness (biological hazards) are used in many different settings.

The Health and Safety at Work Act (1974) requires all employers to manage risks to their employees and the wider public, while specific legislation – the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health 1994 – also applies. Where possible, access to dangerous chemicals should be limited or prevented if feasible. Where access to chemical or biological hazards is part of an employee’s role the risks must be carefully managed and subject to strict controls. These controls can include the use of specialist equipment, clothing and secure (restricted access) storage of potentially dangerous materials.

The Risks of Contamination

The main ways in which employees can become contaminated by chemicals are by breathing them in from the atmosphere, by absorption via the skin or by swallowing them. In most cases simple steps can be taken to minimise the risks of all three types of contamination. Monitoring of the air in the workplace can help to identify if hazardous levels are present and this should normally be an issue that can be resolved quickly. Again, this type of monitoring should reduce the risk of contamination via absorption and simple steps to ensure that employees wear protective gloves and wash their hands thoroughly after handling chemicals can reduce the risk of accidental contamination via swallowing. In some industries, biological monitoring may also be appropriate; this involves measuring the presence of hazardous substances in individual employees via blood, urine or breath tests. Where risks of absorption through the skin are high this type of monitoring is likely to be the most appropriate step to ensure that workers remain safe. If employees are required to use protective clothing to minimise risks, biological monitoring can also help to confirm that the protective clothing or equipment is effective.

Biological Monitoring Basics

Biological monitoring may be essential to ensure your employees are adequately protected and are not exposed to dangerous levels of chemicals. However, employers will need to ensure that any monitoring is carried out correctly and also gain permission from individual employees to carry out these tests. A clear health and safety policy should be implemented which explains why the tests are taken, how the results will be interpreted and what action may result from the findings. The employee must be allowed to identify who has access to the results. They are also allowed to specify whether the report allows them to be identified, or if the results should remain anonymous. Tests should only be carried out for specific chemicals to which the employee is exposed (they should not, for example, also cover test for drugs and alcohol use) and the results of the test must not affect the conditions or terms of employment.

Main Industries with Chemical or Biological Risks

Most, if not all, manufacturing and industrial processes can involve some level of exposure to chemical or biological hazards. For this reason it is essential to examine closely the potentials for risk in your own business. In addition, medical and scientific businesses and even some elements of the catering and hospitality industries may involve exposure to chemical and other hazards. Ensuring that you have assessed the potential risks, have guidelines in place to deal with exposure to them and provide appropriate personal protective equipment for your employees are all basic steps to ensuring compliance with the legislation and also in creating the safest possible workplace.