Last reviewed 13 February 2014

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has published a revised Approved Code of Practice (ACOP) to provide practical advice on compliance with the requirements of the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations 2002 (COSHH). Martin Hodgson reports.

The ACOP was one of several identified for review and revision, consolidation or withdrawal, in line with a recommendation by Professor Ragnar Löfstedt in his November 2011 review on health and safety legislation.

What does COSHH require, how does it apply to adult social care residential settings such as care homes, and what changes are introduced in the new ACOP?

What is COSHH?

COSHH protects people from substances at work that might harm them. Substances covered by COSHH include:

  • substances classified in the regulation on classification, labelling and packaging as very toxic, toxic, harmful, corrosive, or irritant

  • substances with a workplace exposure limit assigned to them

  • substances that are biological agents, such as tetanus, legionnaires' disease, etc

  • certain dusts present in the workplace above certain concentrations

  • substances that are not covered by the above but, because of their hazardous properties and the way they are used, create a comparable risk to health.

COSHH does not apply to substances such as asbestos and lead, which are covered by specific legislation.

How does COSHH apply in adult residential social care?

Most businesses, including care homes, use substances or products that might be hazardous to health if workers or the public are exposed to them, or use them in the wrong way or without the proper precautions. Examples of substances that can be hazardous, which are frequently encountered in a care home setting, include:

  • cleaning materials, such as acid or bleach-based toilet cleaners

  • corrosive drain-cleaning substances based on sulphuric acid or caustic soda

  • kitchen cleaning materials, such as floor and oven cleaners

  • maintenance materials, such as paints, solvents, lubricants, water treatment chemicals and dusts

  • biological materials, such as soiled clothing and bed linen, urine and faeces.

Biological agents are considered hazardous to health, whether exposure results from a deliberate intention to work with a biological agent or exposure is incidental to the work activity. In nursing homes, many infectious agents can easily spread between home users, employees and visitors if sufficient safeguards are not in place.

How do care home managers ensure compliance with COSHH?

COSHH requires care home managers to identify potentially hazardous substances present in the workplace, assess the risks they pose to people's health, and put in place sufficient control measures to reduce or eliminate those risks.

The best form of control is to reduce the risk altogether, by stopping the use of a particular chemical, for instance, or substituting a safer substance. Where a substance must be used, managers should ensure that it is used safely, according to manufacturer’s instructions, and that appropriate training and procedures are in place. In some cases, it may mean the use of personal protective equipment such as gloves. In other cases, surveillance and monitoring should be in place.

The first step in complying with the regulations is to identify any potentially harmful substances and complete a “suitable and sufficient” risk assessment. The assessment requires:

  • information to be gathered about the substances, including ways they are used or, in the case of biological agents, ways they can be contracted

  • an evaluation of the likelihood of exposure and risks to health

  • a determination of the measures required to prevent employees being exposed to the substances or to adequately control the exposure.

Legal responsibility for the assessment rests with the employer. Employers can carry out the assessment themselves, delegate the task in-house, or call in an expert.

An inventory of hazardous substances should also be drawn up. This requires identifying:

  • all activities involving substances

  • where substances are used

  • where substances are produced

  • how substances are handled

  • where substances are stored.

Suppliers of chemicals and other potentially hazardous substances for use at work are required to label their products with information on the dangers, including pictograms and warnings on labels. Suppliers of chemicals also provide safety data sheets that should be kept for reference and which include advice on how the substance should be used, stored and disposed of, and the actions to be taken in case of an accident. Those who are likely to be exposed should be identified, including those not directly involved in the activity, eg staff, cleaners, contractors and visitors.

The assessment should not consider only normal activity. Activities such as maintenance and cleaning should also be considered, as should emergency or non-routine situations.

If five or more people are employed, the significant findings of a COSHH assessment must be recorded. Even if there are fewer than five employees, it is still good practice to record the results.

What changes are made in the new ACOP?

Specific revisions include:

  • taking account of legislative changes, such as the introduction of the EU regulations for the Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals, and the Classification, Labelling and Packaging of Substances and Mixtures systems

  • amending to reflect other ongoing reviews of technical guidance associated with COSHH, eg for local exhaust ventilation (LEV) and health surveillance

  • clarification of the maintenance, examination and testing of control measures and LEV, explaining that the legal duty to keep a suitable record of examinations and tests lies with the employer and not with any service provider or consultant

  • removal of guidance on the principles of good practice from Schedule 2a of the ACOP, with repositioning either next to the relevant regulation or separately on the HSE website

  • clarification of specialist terminology where possible

  • amending of information concerning worker involvement, and consultation for consistency with that in other ACOPs.

The HSE has emphasised that legal responsibilities to protect workers’ health and safety are not altered by any changes to ACOPs.

Further information

The sixth edition of the ACOP, L5 Control of Substances Hazardous to Health, is available on the HSE website.