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Health and Safety

Chemicals and Dust

For more information on Chemicals and Dust click here for the relevant chapter of the TUC guide to health and safety "Hazards at Work

The Department of Trade and Industry says there are 400 million tons of chemicals are produced annually and over 1,000 new chemicals are produced in the UK each year. Up to 10,000 commercial chemicals are hazardous of which 150-200 may cause cancer. The Chemical industry is the UK 's largest manufacturing sector, with a turnover of £41 billion, employing more than 400,000 people.

But you don't even have to be one of those workers to be exposed. Virtually all workplaces use or contain hazardous substances.

The three main ways a chemical can enter the body are through inhalation, absorption through the skin, or ingestion with effects on health that could quickly develop or maybe take years. Affected workers may suffer symptoms including: Irritation, perhaps leading to dermatitis; sensitisation, possibly leading to asthma; a loss of consciousness if overcome by toxic fumes; and long-term effects such as cancer.

The Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations (COSHH) cover virtually all workplaces, requiring employers to prevent, wherever reasonably practicable, workers' exposure to hazardous substances, and to control it where not. There are eight steps employers must take to comply with COSHH. If the employer is not taking them, then workers are at risk. Safety reps should ensure that the eight steps are fulfilled.

In December 2006 the European Commission approved a new set of regulations on Chemicals called REACH. This will be implemented within the UK over the next two years. The TUC has produced a briefing on this (see links)

Dust at work has been one of the largest occupational killers of all time. It has caused misery to and shortened the lives of hundreds of thousands of workers.

Workers in mines, quarries, foundries, textiles, mills, bakeries, or industries with wood, leather and radioactive materials amongst others are likely to develop ill health. Health problems associated with dust exposure include; silicosis, asthma, emphysema, mesothelioma, cancer, allergies, skin and eye damage, blood disorders and nervous system damage. And new occupational conditions can arise - for example "flock workers lung" or organic dust toxic syndrome.

Many dusts including flour, coal, metal, and rubber are combustible. These and other dusts can also be explosive.

No dust should be regarded as "safe", even some dust thought just to be a nuisance turned out, in the light of further research, to present a significant threat.


TUC briefing on REACH - http://www.tuc.org.uk/h_and_s/tuc-12870-f0.cfm

TUC powerpoint presentation on dangerous substances and the role of safety reps in dealing with them www.tuc.org.uk/extras/euroweek.ppt

Control of Substances Hazardous to Health - COSHHhttp://www.hse.gov.uk/coshh/index.htm

COSHH Essentials provides advice on controlling the use of chemicals for a range of common tasks http://www.coshh-essentials.org.uk/

UNISON: Hazardous substances information sheet: www.unison.org.uk/safety/doc_view.asp?did=992

The most recent documents available on this subject are:

UK bids to weaken formaldehyde standard
The UK government has attempted to undermine a proposed new European exposure limit to protect workers from a chemical linked to allergies and cancer.
PDF version available for download
6 June 2008

Common solvents threaten fertility
Men regularly exposed to chemicals found in paint and other common products may be more prone to fertility problems, UK research has indicated.
30 May 2008

Formaldehyde linked to Lou Gehrig's disease
New preliminary research suggests that exposure to the chemical formaldehyde, present in workplaces from laboratories to hospitals to MDF factories, could greatly increase a person's chances of developing Lou Gehrig's disease.
PDF version available for download
25 April 2008

Colleges warned after acid explosion injury
Lecturers' union UCU has urged colleges to learn urgent safety lessons after the prosecution of City of Bristol College.
PDF version available for download
11 April 2008

Lead exposure still a problem
The number of workers under medical surveillance for lead exposure rose last year.
PDF version available for download
14 March 2008

New chemicals health monitor
The Health and Environment Alliance has launched a new Chemicals Health Monitor website - an online source of information about chemicals and related diseases.
PDF version available for download
14 March 2008

Older documents - 9   >

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