Working with dangerous chemicals holds the potential to be one of the most hazardous undertakings imaginable, were it not for the fact that thankfully it is also one of the most comprehensively regulated areas of employment in the UK. When an employer effectively engages with their legal health and safety duties and takes the necessary steps to manage risk to ensure that the workplace is a safe place and their employees’ health, safety and welfare requirements are fully addressed, working with dangerous chemicals then generally becomes an acceptably safe undertaking.
The scale of the risk
Currently around 500,000 dangerous chemicals are commonly used in manufacturing, agriculture, scientific research, medicine and industry, each of which constitutes either a physical or health risk. These chemicals might be flammable, explosive, corrosive, poisonous or radio-active and when an employer fails to understand the associated hazards a cascade of inadequate health and safety outcomes can occur. Ultimately and almost inevitably this results in injury to their employees or anyone else unfortunate enough to inhale, ingest or come into physical contact with the dangerous chemical itself or something it has been in contact with. Such injuries can give rise to expensive personal injury compensation claims.
With hundreds of newly developed dangerous chemicals coming on to the market each year, having the expertise to understand the likelihood of the ones a company uses in its processes causing harm when used in specific ways and being aware of their degree of toxicity and of safe levels of exposure is critical to establishing the necessary risk controls. Such a failure of understanding will cascade downwards through the workforce resulting in employees being inadequately protected against exposure to dangerous chemicals.
Dangerous chemicals – the failure of safety measures
On a practical level this will manifest in a multitude of ways in the work environment and work process. Examples of health and safety failings when working with dangerous chemicals might include:
• Inadequate health and safety training and awareness of the risks presented by the chemicals.
• The requirement for and purpose of risk controls inadequately explained to the workforce.
• Incorrect or inadequate labelling of chemical containers.
• Inadequate warning signage.
• Inadequate access to Control of Substances Hazardous to Health (COSHH) chemical data sheets.
• No health monitoring for employees.
• Exposure limits exceeded due to a lack of accurate information or dangerous processes.
• Untidy workplace with slip and trip and fall hazards unaddressed.
• Inadequate control of sources of ignition.
• A non-existent or inadequate spillage/chemical escape system.
• An inadequate leak detection system.
• Failure to separate incompatible substances.
• Inadequate or incorrect personal protective equipment supplied to employees.
• Using chemicals past their expiry date.
• Lack of necessary temperature control or automatic shut off systems.
Unfortunately the list goes on and on. None of the above health and safety failings or the many others that there aren’t room for here, are unaddressed by current health and safety regulations or compilations of industry best practice. When they occur it is usually because of non-compliance with the regulations or a disregard for best practice.
Tim Bishop – senior partner of Bonallack and Bishop – Solicitors with a team of accident at work specialists. For more information on claiming compensation following a work related accident, visit their website at http://www.workaccidentsolicitors.co.uk or call their workplace accident solicitors on 01722 422300.