LRD Booklets April 2010

Hazardous substances - a guide for safety reps


Hazardous substances are used in almost every workplace — factories, offices, building sites, shops, schools, hospitals, kitchens, parks, gardens and farms. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE), the independent body responsible for health and safety policy and the enforcement of health and safety law, estimates that some 1.3 million businesses are engaged in activities which involve the use or production of substances hazardous to health.

And the TUC estimates that over seven million — one in three — of all workers in Britain breathe in harmful fumes and dusts on a daily basis in the course of their work. These substances can cause skin diseases like dermatitis, lung diseases like asthma, and in some cases such as asbestos, even fatal cancers like mesothelioma.

Chemicals in the workplace are present as gases, vapours, fumes, aerosols, liquids, dust, fibres and solids. Over two million workers regularly come into contact with solvents alone. These are used to dissolve or dilute other substances and are present in paint, printing inks, cleaning liquids, adhesives and pesticides.

It is difficult to estimate the number of people exposed to biological hazards. For example, there are problems in being able to establish a direct causal relationship between exposure at work and the development of an infection. However, around three million workers are employed in the health services, biomedical sciences, on farms, in the food industry and as animal care workers. They are potentially at risk through exposure to viruses and bacteria, dangerous plants and animals, and the harmful by-products of living things.

The cost of work-related illness caused by exposure to hazardous substances is huge, not only for workers, but also for businesses, the health service and society as a whole. The HSE says that it costs many millions of pounds each year to industry: to replace the trained worker; to society, in disability allowances and medicines; and to individuals, who may lose their jobs.

Health and safety in the workplace is one of the TUC’s top campaigning priorities, and trade union success in influencing change can be seen in the campaigns it has run on hazardous substances. These include campaigns for legal asbestos controls and for justice for asbestos victims; a successful campaign for an Approved Code of Practice (ACoP) on asthma; and an awareness-raising campaign on the causes and prevention of occupational asthma.

At workplace level it is trade union safety reps and other workplace representatives who play a key role in making sure that the damaging effects of hazardous substances are prevented by taking action to protect their members in their workplaces.

This booklet gives examples of the kind of action being taken to tackle hazardous substances at work as well as detailing the relevant health and safety law. It explains in a clear and concise way about where hazardous substances can arise and how exposure can be prevented or controlled.