How to safely handle, store and dispose of hazardous substances

Hazardous substances are used or created in a multitude of different industries. From solvents, paints and dust in construction and maintenance, bleach and other chemicals in cleaning, to oils and fumes in transport and even ink and toner in offices, you may be surprised by how common these hazardous substances are in nearly every industry.

As a business owner, you are responsible for protecting your staff and the environment from harm, so it’s important that hazardous substances are properly controlled. In this blog, we offer guidance for controlling hazardous substances in the workplace, and how to handle, store and dispose of them effectively and safely.

What is a hazardous substance?

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) defines a hazardous substance as any chemical that may cause harm. In a working environment, a hazardous substance can come in many different forms, including items that may be used to fulfill a specific purpose such as certain chemicals or materials that appear naturally such as dust.

Common hazardous substances and materials in the workplace include:

  • Asbestos
  • Batteries
  • Chemicals and products that have byproducts as part of their process
  • Disinfectants
  • Dust (in multiple forms)
  • Forms of nanotechnology
  • Fumes and gases
  • Germs and bacteria (and viruses)
  • Glues and solvents
  • Heavy metals
  • Paints
  • Pesticides

Any and all industries are likely to deal with harmful substances to some degree, with both small and large businesses included. For example, while dust and fumes are common in construction, manufacturing, and maintenance, harmful materials are handled and disposed of in all areas of healthcare, whether that’s in a hospital, doctor’s surgery, dentist, or care home. Elsewhere, chemicals are frequently used in agriculture and for the general cleaning of healthcare facilities and offices.

An employee of a company accounting for hazardous substances

How to control hazardous substances

The Control of Substances Hazardous to Health (COSHH) is legislation that is designed to ensure that business owners are controlling the harmful materials they use and protecting employees correctly. Under COSHH, it’s necessary to ensure that hazardous substances are correctly identified/assessed, controlled by using suitable equipment and PPE, covered by adequate operating procedures and that all members of staff follow these processes correctly.

Once a business owner establishes a process for how they control the hazardous substances their business uses, they can look at the more specific core areas of handling, storing, and disposing of these substances. Fundamentally, seeking either non or less hazardous alternatives or removing the use/need altogether would be first priority.

How to handle hazardous substances

Before handling a hazardous substance, the HSE advises that you gain as much information as possible. Start by reading any guidance for handling the substance safely included in the item’s packaging and labelling. If you are unable to find the information you need, consider asking the supplier, looking up the item on the internet, or seeing whether the HSE or manufacturer provides guidance for handling it. In most cases, a hazardous substance will be labelled with symbols to indicate the dangers it possesses such as whether it’s toxic, harmful, an irritant, flammable, explosive, dangerous to the environment, oxidising or corrosive.

It’s also strongly advised that the substance is assessed to identify the threats it carries and effective methods of avoiding harm based on these observations. This can be done by performing your COSHH Assessment, based on the information contained on the manufacturer’s safety data sheet. Your assessment will identify what controls are needed to protect your people and must be communicated to the relevant people who are using the substance.

 

For example, if the substance is capable of emitting harmful fumes, implementing extraction systems or safer processes is a crucial first step. Wearing a breathing mask to prevent inhaling these fumes is another potential control if you can’t completely eliminate use of the substance in the first instance. Alternatively, if the substance could cause harm if it comes into contact with skin, wearing protective clothing that meets safety standards to prevent the substance from reaching the skin is equally as important.

Not only should effective control measures be used, they also need to be used correctly. It could be a mask to protect the face and prevent harmful substances from entering the body through the mouth, nose, ears and eyes or gloves to stop the substance from coming into contact with skin. Using specific items such as an extractor fan or handling the substance in certain environments that are better suited, such as a laboratory, are other control measures that are likely to reduce the level of risk involved with handling a hazardous substance.

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How to store hazardous substances

As certain substances and materials may be stored for long periods of time, it’s important that they’re kept in areas that are suitable for holding them without compromising the quality, leaking and contaminating the surrounding area. As with handling, how you store a harmful substance will be primarily determined by the nature of it. Likewise, referring to the manufacturer’s instructions and hazard symbols will help to determine how you store the substance.

Other important factors for storing hazardous substances include:

  • Carrying out training for all staff to ensure that substances are being stored correctly
  • Conducting frequent checks over the condition of the storage container
  • Creating an overspill/bunded area in the event of a leak
  • Having an emergency leak procedure in place with the correct equipment to support this
  • Labelling storage containers correctly
  • Limiting the amount of each substance stored at any one time
  • Keeping flammable substances away from areas that could cause them to ignite
  • Minimising the risk of leakage
  • Raising hazardous fluids above ground away from risks
  • Storing hazardous substances separately.
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How should you dispose of hazardous substances?

Due to the potentially devastating effects of certain substances, it’s crucial that they’re disposed of correctly. Make sure you reference the manufacturer’s safety data sheet and record any relevant information in your COSHH Assessment.  For any working environment, authorised sites are provided for properly disposing of hazardous substances. However, many specialist waste disposal companies will collect hazardous substances from your workplace to ensure that it’s being disposed of correctly. It can then be assessed, and the nature of the substance will determine how it’s disposed of.

In some cases, hazardous substances can be reused or recycled to reduce the amount of waste in landfills. Items that fall into this category include glues, fluorescent tubes, automobile fluids, oil-based paints, cleaning products, propane and butane tanks and batteries. Businesses can do this by taking hazardous substances to recycling centres themselves or organising for a company to pick them up.

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