January 30, 2014

HSE clamps down on risks from harmful substances

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) Construction Division is cracking down on poor management of risks from harmful substances.

Heather Bryant, the HSE’s Chief Construction Inspector has said that employers in the construction industry have lost their way when it comes to protecting employees and others from the effects of harmful substances.

There is a wide range of harmful substances present on a typical building site, including materials that builders bring onto sites, such as paints and sealants, as well as those produced on site, such as dusts from Portland cement and from processes such as masonry cutting and so forth.

Builders, like all other employers, are bound by the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health (COSHH) Regulations. In brief, the Regulations oblige employers to assess the risks from harmful substances used or produced in their undertakings, and to apply the Hierarchy of Control to minimise the risks to employees and others. Because the risks from harmful substances may be complicated, the risk assessment and risk reduction measures can also be a little complicated.

Perhaps the first question is “What is a harmful substance?” Under COSHH a harmful substance is any material that can cause harm to people – by inhalation, by contact with the skin or eyes, and by ingestion. A different set of Regulations (CPL Regulations, concerning the classification, packaging and labelling of chemicals and preparations) already mean that suppliers must give important information about a chemical’s properties, and where applicable, attach information to packages to indicate the dangers. The new globally harmonised (GHS) symbols for harmful, packaged substances look like these:

Signs

Further information will be available in the material safety data sheets, which the supplier must provide.

The second obligation, often ignored by risk assessors, is to apply the Hierarchy of Controls to reduce the risks to employees and others.  The hierarchy is as follows:

  • ELIMINATE the hazard altogether – e.g. have wooden items delivered with preservatives already applied, or already painted.
  • SUBSTITUTE a safer material, e.g. by using water-based paints instead of oil-based paints.
  • Use a SAFER FORM of the material, such as applying preservative with a brush, rather than spraying a fine mist at a fence.

If none of the above are possible, then employers should consider protective precautions in the following order:

  • Engineering Controls, such as total enclosure such as a fumecupboard (this is highly unlikely to be possible on a construction site) – this solution protects everyone.
  • Provide partial enclosure such as local exhaust ventilation, as often used for instance with welding – this solution protects those engaged with the harmful substance and others working close by.
  • Provide good general ventilation –  this option is normally freely available on an open site.
  • Finally – provide equipment that protects individual employees, such as glasses, gloves, aprons and so on – personal protection equipment or PPE.

All too often, employers jump straight to the end of the hierarchy immediately when they know that a hazard is present – for example, when concrete blocks are to be cut with a disc saw, employers provide ear defenders and dust masks.  Using the hierarchy, you could first consider buying the blocks at the right size.

Then, as some blocks may still need to be cut, you could use the saw in a particular place – isolated from most of the people on site.  Dust can be reduced by using water-spray.  In this example, only the saw operators need hearing protection, and no-one needs respiratory protection.

One dangerous material frequently met in the construction industry is Asbestos, in any of its forms and in many materials.  HSE Inspectors visiting refurbishment projects will fully expect to find a survey on site showing all Asbestos (or presumed asbestos) and a plan for either safe removal or safe working around the asbestos.  As well as the serious, chronic health hazards, the HSE could easily apply immediate financial penalties applied under the Fees for Intervention Scheme if they find “material deficiencies.”

Heather Bryant has also suggested that the much-vaunted replacement for the Construction (Design & Management) Regulations will go out for consultation within the first quarter of 2014, and this means, they say, that the new regulations are unlikely to be ready for implementation in October this year, but look out for something in April 2015.

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