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Harmful substances

Many materials or substances used or created at work could harm your health. These substances could be dusts, gases or fumes that you breathe in, or liquids, gels or powders that come into contact with your eyes or skin. There could also be harmful micro-organisms present that can cause infection, an allergic reaction or are toxic.

Harmful substances can be present in anything from paints and cleaners to flour dust, solder fume, blood or waste. Ill health caused by these substances used at work is preventable. Many substances can harm health but, used properly, they almost never do.

Case study

A hairdresser was diagnosed as suffering from irritant contact dermatitis caused by wet work. His hands were painfully itchy, and they would also scab over and bleed.

What the employer has done

The employer has introduced a hand-care regime. This includes wearing suitable gloves when washing clients' hair and using chemicals. Employees understand about good hand care, including washing chemicals from their skin promptly, drying their hands thoroughly and moisturising them throughout the day. The staff have regular skin checks to make sure any problems are spotted and treated early on.

These measures have helped to control the dermatitis and allowed the hairdresser to continue working in the job he loves.

What are the hazards?

Some substances can cause asthma or other diseases, including cancer. Many can damage the skin, and some can cause serious long-term damage to the lungs.

The effect can be immediate, such as dizziness or stinging eyes, or can take many years to develop, such as lung disease. Many of the long-term or chronic effects cannot be cured once they develop.

What do I have to do?

The law requires you to adequately control exposure to materials in the workplace that cause ill health. This is the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations (COSHH) and means:

These pages explain how to carry out a risk assessment and how to decide on control measures.

Updated 2014-01-20