All about control of substances hazardous to health

The Control of Substances Hazardous to Health (usually referred to as COSHH) covers much more than the vague “nasty chemicals” answer usually given when asking delegates at a health and safety training session.

COSHH applies to substances USED and PRODUCED in the workplace which could cause harm to those in the vicinity and to the environment.

Substances: chemicals, smoke, fumes, gases, vapours, mists, dust, particles, nanotechnology, biological agents and more.  

Harm to those in the vicinity: from contact with substances through inhalation, ingestion (swallowing), skin contact, eye contact.

Damage to the environment: from incorrect disposal of empty containers, from release of substances into the water system (sewers, drains etc), from release of substances into the air, from leaching of substances into the ground.

As you can see, there is a lot for an organisation to consider when ensuring that the substances they are using and producing do not cause harm. Read on to find out how to fill in a COSHH Assessment Template.

NB COSHH does not cover lead, asbestos or radioactive substances as these all have their own specific regulations.  Asbestos is covered in more detail in the Premises section.  Lead and radioactive substances are not covered in this guide.  If either (or both) these are a feature of your workplace, you should seek specialist assistance.  Go to the HSE website – – for further information.

The legislation

  • The Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations 2002 (COSHH)
  • Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals Regulations (REACH)
  • Personal Protective Equipment at Work Regulations 1992
  • Hazardous Waste Regulations

Health and Safety Myth

Employer bans hand wash and furniture polish under COSHH Regulations

An employee was told that, due to COSHH, they cannot leave hand wash they have purchased themselves in the toilets, and they cannot use any of their own cleaning materials e.g. furniture polish. They are not clear how hand wash and cleaning products purchased from high street shops can fall under COSHH regulations.

It is commendable that the company is considering possible risks their employees could be exposed to at work, but this is a risk averse and somewhat misguided interpretation of COSHH requirements. Products like hand wash are very unlikely to contain substances which are hazardous to health and so fall outside of the scope of COSHH.  Furniture polish and other cleaning products purchased from retail outlets will be clearly marked with instructions for use, so provided the cleaning materials are in properly labelled containers there is no reason to stop their use.

Frequently asked questions

Your suppliers should provide you with the safety data sheets, but sadly this is often not the case.  Ask your supplier first, but if you have any problems getting the safety data sheets you need, visit the manufacturer’s website and search for the information there.  DO NOT confuse safety data sheets with technical data sheets – they are two different documents.  You should go through the safety data sheets once a year to check whether or not they have been updated and if you need to change any information in your COSHH Assessment.

  1. Make sure you can supply all the controls you have identified e.g., the Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), the method of storing the substance, the appropriate first aid supplies, the appropriate fire extinguishers, the appropriate method of disposal of empty containers and any other preventive or protective measures you have decided on.
  2. Pass the COSHH Assessment to ALL those who could be affected by the substance. They MUST read the assessment – ask them to sign to confirm this if necessary. 

The best answer is to read through the relevant section in this Guide!  But to summarise, you must identify all substances that are used and produced during the course of working activities in your organisation.  You must then assess the risks these substances present and the control measures you will introduce to combat these risks.  You do this by acquiring a Safety Data Sheet from the manufacturer and completing a COSHH Assessment.  Once completed, you must share the assessment with all those who could be affected by contact with the substance and make sure you have provided all the preventive and protective controls you have identified in the assessment.