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The Control of Substances Hazardous to Health (COSHH) is a set of regulations that were initially created in 1999. COSHH directives legally require employers to exercise control concerning exposure to hazardous substances and prevent ill health on their premises. This includes in schools and special steps must be taken to ensure that COSHH regulations are adhered to in education establishments.
In schools, COSHH helps to protect staff and students from unnecessary harm, ensuring that all harmful substances are secure, monitored, and only accessible to allocated members of staff. The guidelines also help to guarantee that Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) is available and used appropriately by all parties.
COSHH is an essential factor in school regulations as hazardous substances are often present in various faculties throughout school campuses. In this guide, we will explain what COSHH is, what hazardous substances are and COSHH policy in schools.
We’ll also discuss how COSHH is implemented in schools, the responsibilities of school employers, and which employees should undergo COSHH training in a school environment. The information in this article should help you to understand COSHH requirements fully, and develop a robust COSHH policy in your school.
What is COSHH?
COSHH is a law that requires all employers to be responsible for controlling any substances deemed hazardous to health. In schools, management can reduce or prevent exposure to harmful substances by:
- Undertaking a COSHH risk assessment.
- Thoroughly investigating all potential health hazards on the school campus.
- Publishing control measures to prevent risk and harm to health.
- Making sure that these measures are implemented by appropriate staff.
- Ensuring that all control measures are efficient and in good working order.
- Providing training, information, and instructions for appropriate employees.
- Making sure that there is a plan in place for emergencies.
- Providing health monitoring and surveillance wherever necessary.
Almost all businesses use harmful substances in one form or another. These could be chemicals used for cleaning, specks of dust, gases, fumes, liquids, or powders. Specific processes can create harmful substances by way of a chemical reaction, and these secondary substances can cause harm to students, employees, contractors, or school visitors.
COSHH assessments must be carried out by law if your place of work uses any harmful substances.
What are hazardous substances?
Hazardous substances include any substance that has one or more dangerous properties. This includes toxicity, explosiveness, ability to oxidise, and flammability.
UK COSHH regulations cover the majority of common substances that have proven to be hazardous to health. Note that these substances can be present in a variety of different forms.
Substances included in COSHH regulations include:
- Products that contain chemicals.
- Gases and asphyxiating gases.
- Germs that cause diseases.
- Biological agents.
Some substances are not covered by COSHH regulations but are still classed as hazardous.
The following substances have their own set of regulations:
Hazardous substances can cause a myriad of long and short-term health problems. They can also lead to explosions, fires, and could prove fatal if they are not regulated and controlled efficiently.
Mild effects from exposure to harmful substances include skin and eye irritation, with more severe effects including lung disease and cancer. However, serious conditions only tend to develop in people who are frequently exposed to harmful substances for long periods of time.
Does my school need a COSHH assessment?
Almost every school in the UK will have numerous hazardous items and chemicals located throughout their premises. Therefore, it is the legal responsibility of all school employers to manage the risks to their staff and students.
Think about your science department, what chemicals and cases are present within the Biology, Chemistry, and Physics departments? Then there’s the design and technology department, with hazardous types of, glues, solvents, paints, and even welding equipment in some colleges. Not forgetting the range of chemicals that are present in cleaning products and in cleaning storerooms that may be scattered across the school.
To ensure that all of these potentially hazardous substances are monitored, secured, stored, and used appropriately, the school management has to implement and adhere to COSHH guidelines at all times.
How is COSHH used in schools?
COSHH can be implemented via regulations and policies across schools. This includes the most ‘hazardous’ areas in which harmful substances are stored, accessed, and used. It’s vital that all pupils and staff understand the meaning of all COSHH symbols, which must be clearly present on the packaging of all hazardous substances.
These COSHH symbols are very important as they clarify the dangers and potential consequences of contact with the substance to which they relate. Remember, COSHH must be implemented throughout the entire school, not just in areas that hold harmful substances.
However, areas of schools that may require special attention include:
Perhaps one of the most likely places to find hazardous substances in a school is in science laboratories. For this reason, stringent precautionary measures must be implemented to keep pupils and staff safe.
This is particularly relevant for practical teaching activities in chemistry lessons, which frequently involve the use of potentially dangerous chemicals. Although these chemicals may not be hazardous on their own, they can produce toxic fumes and gases when mixed together. Therefore, all teaching staff must be trained on how to control hazardous chemicals and why it’s paramount to relay this information to pupils before they handle them. All people in the school that come into contact with these substances must be COSHH compliant, fully comprehending all safety measures that are in place as part of the COSHH policy in school regulations.
In school laboratory setups, Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) must be purchased, supplied, and worn at all times deemed necessary. This includes safety goggles, lab coats, and protective gloves. Science staff can conduct thorough risk-assessments to determine which PPE is required for handling each hazardous substance.
Additionally, the chemical storeroom should be locked at all times when it is not in use, and qualified lab technicians should be on hand to oversee and help with the handling of any substances that could cause harm. These lab technicians are responsible for logging the use of all chemicals to avoid substances from being misplaced or abused by pupils.
Furthermore, all pupils must be supervised at all times if they are using dangerous chemicals.
Design and technology classrooms
Potentially dangerous substances are often used in design and technology (D&T) workshops. These include solvent-based varnishes, glues, and paints. Additionally, harmful fumes and dust can be produced by sanding, soldering, or other essential fabrication processes.
Design and technology teachers are likely to be exposed to harmful substances most days. So, it’s essential that they are both protected and educated around the long-term health risks associated with prolonged and repeated exposure. Certain substances can irritate the lungs and airways progressively, which is why PPE is so vital for protecting staff.
Additionally, risk assessments must be undertaken, as with the chemistry laboratory, to understand the risks associated with all harmful substances present fully. Once all risks have been identified, policies should be created to implement COSHH regulations in these areas of the school. For examples, the use of safety goggles, visors, and providing ample ventilation can all help to mitigate risk in a D&T classroom environment. Additionally, all teachers and supply staff must be fully trained on what action to take in the event of an accident or emergency in the D&T workshop.
Cleaning products/ cleaning storerooms
Although a lot of our focus has been around hazardous substances in the classroom, it’s important to remember that cleaning products pose a significant risk if they are misused or left unattended.
In most cases, school cleaners are contracted via third-party organisations instead of being employed directly by the school. This poses a challenge with regards to COSHH compliance, as the school isn’t responsible for ensuring that all cleaners are trained efficiently. However, cleaning staff must legally understand any dangers posed by chemicals that they use as part of their job. They must also understand the importance of using caution in a working environment that includes children. Therefore, all chemicals must be safely locked away after use, and should never be accessible to school pupils.
Additionally, cleaning products should either be provided by the school or checked by a qualified member of staff before use. We recommend that school managers liaise with cleaning companies and ensure that all staff have completed a COSHH training course. The COSHH policy in your school must cover cleaning staff, making sure that they have access to, and use the appropriate PPE at all times.
What are the responsibilities of the employer and the employee?
When it comes to implementing COSHH in schools, both the employees and employers have individual responsibilities.
Employer responsibilities include:
- Preventing or controlling any exposure to hazardous substances throughout the school premises.
- Implementing and adhering to safety measures to protect workers and pupils from hazardous substances.
- Providing all employees with information, training, instructions, and PPE equipment wherever necessary.
- Making sure that all control measures are clean, in full working order, and well maintained.
- Creating and implementing procedures to deal with accidents and emergencies that involve hazardous substances.
- Ensuring that substances never exceed the Workplace Exposure Limit (WEL).
- Undertaking a COSHH risk assessment.
- Ensuring all employees that are exposed to hazardous substances while working at the school.
Employee responsibilities include:
- Using facilities and control measures that are provider by their employer.
- Storing and wearing PPE equipment.
- Reporting any insufficiencies or defects apparent in control measures.
- Maintaining a high level of personal hygiene.
- 100% compliance with all instructions, training, and information provided.
- Removing any PPE that could cause harm or contamination prior to eating or drinking.
- Efficient use of showering, washing, and bathing facilities when required.
Note that some school environments will have much higher risks than others. For example, if your school specialises in science and technology, it’s likely to pose more risk than a traditional school. For this reason, a COSHH risk assessment is essential as it ensures that your school’s COSHH policy is customised to the exact safety needs of your staff and pupils.
COSHH Risk Assessment
COSHH risk assessments follow the same format as standard risk assessments concerning their process. However, their evaluation of the workplace emphasis solely on hazardous substances.
The standard processes that a risk assessment follow can be summarised in five steps:
- Identify all hazards.
- Decide who could be harmed and how.
- Evaluate all risks and decide which precautions to put in place.
- Record these findings and explore ways to implement them.
- Regularly review the assessment and amend accordingly.
Professional risk assessments involve frequent monitoring of workplace conditions and processes. Schools are busy environments, continually changing and updating. Therefore, COSHH risk assessments should be reviewed periodically to ensure safety against hazardous substances. Managerial vigilance must be apparent at all times, especially across parts of the school that have been marked as ‘high risk’ areas.
Who should undergo COSHH training?
All school managerial staff should undergo COSHH training, as well as cleaners, art teachers, and design and technology staff. Additionally, any team members that work with storing, using, or managing hazardous substances are legally required to be fully-trained around COSHH compliance.
We hope that this guide has answered all of your questions surrounding COSHH requirements in schools. Remember, COSHH is a legal obligation and is an important factor in managing the overall safety in your school. Failure to comply with COSHH regulations in schools across the UK can result in significant fines and prosecution. If your school fails to control hazardous substances adequately, pupils and employees could become seriously ill. Effects from such substances can range from eye irritation and skin problems through to chronic lung conditions and death. For these reasons, COSHH legislation must be taken seriously.
Not only do COSHH guidelines provide a safety net around the use of harmful substances, but they also offer protection and prevent unnecessary accidents from occurring. COSHH is essential for ensuring that all pupils, staff, and visitors to the school are safe and protected at all times.