Chemicals and Dust

Share this page

Activist Resources

Guidance for union health and safety representatives This new guidance
REACH is the Registration Evaluation and Authorisation of Chemicals Regulations

The Department of Trade and Industry says there are 400 million tons of chemicals are produced annually and over 1,000 new chemicals are produced in the UK each year. Up to 10,000 commercial chemicals are hazardous of which 150-200 may cause cancer. The Chemical industry is the UK 's largest manufacturing sector, with a turnover of £41 billion, employing more than 400,000 people.

But you don't even have to be one of those workers to be exposed. Virtually all workplaces use or contain hazardous substances.

The three main ways a chemical can enter the body are through inhalation, absorption through the skin, or ingestion with effects on health that could quickly develop or maybe take years. Affected workers may suffer symptoms including: Irritation, perhaps leading to dermatitis; sensitisation, possibly leading to asthma; a loss of consciousness if overcome by toxic fumes; and long-term effects such as cancer.

The Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations (COSHH) cover virtually all workplaces, requiring employers to prevent, wherever reasonably practicable, workers' exposure to hazardous substances, and to control it where not. There are eight steps employers must take to comply with COSHH. If the employer is not taking them, then workers are at risk. Safety reps should ensure that the eight steps are fulfilled.

For more information on Chemicals and Dust click here for the relevant chapter of the TUC guide to health and safety "Hazards at Work

In December 2006 the European Commission approved a new set of regulations on Chemicals called REACH. This is now law. The TUC has produced a briefing on this (see links)

Dust at work has been one of the largest occupational killers of all time. It has caused misery to and shortened the lives of hundreds of thousands of workers.

Workers in mines, quarries, foundries, textiles, mills, bakeries, or industries with wood, leather and radioactive materials amongst others are likely to develop ill health. Health problems associated with dust exposure include; silicosis, asthma, emphysema, mesothelioma, cancer, allergies, skin and eye damage, blood disorders and nervous system damage. And new occupational conditions can arise - for example "flock workers lung" or organic dust toxic syndrome.

Many dusts including flour, coal, metal, and rubber are combustible. These and other dusts can also be explosive.

No dust should be regarded as "safe", even some dust thought just to be a nuisance turned out, in the light of further research, to present a significant threat.


The aim of this TUC survey is to get an indication of how many workers are exposed to substances in the workplace that could injure them or make them ill, and whether employers are taking appropriate action to remove them or prevent exposure. Many think of hazardous substances as being...
30 January 2015
Benefits Advice for people affected by Cancer In conjunction with Macmillan Cancer Support we are offering this bite size briefing which will give an overview of the work being undertaken by the Northern TUC Asbestos Support and Campaign Group. The briefing will also give an insight into the benefit entitlements...
03 April 2014
An Alcan Aluminium employee needed knee surgery after slipping on a chemical that had leaked onto a workshop floor.
16 August 2013
The UK's workplace dust standard should be tightened considerably to protect workers from serious diseases, a new academic paper has concluded.
09 August 2013
Dust in the workplace is not just a nuisance... It can be a killer. This factsheet looks at the what the law says about dust in the workplace, why the dust limit is too high, and why regulations need to be properly enforced.
26 April 2013
US-based Clean Production Action (CPA) has released a new ‘Guide to safer chemicals', a practical tool setting benchmarks for how users of chemicals - purchasers, retailers and product manufacturers - can track their progress towards safer chemicals use.
14 December 2012
The US based Center for Construction Research and Training (CPWR), has launched a ‘Work safely with silica' website. CPWR, an organisation working closely with US construction unions, says as well as giving details of US silica regulation and official research, the new resource includes other research, articles, and training materials,...
14 December 2012
The Hazards Campaign has criticised an HSE intervention strategy on occupational cancer saying it 'fails to acknowledge the actual scale of cancer caused by work'.
24 August 2012
It has been known for some time that inhaling tiny fibres made by the nanotechnology industry could cause similar health problems to asbestos.
24 August 2012
Unions have called for urgent action to protect workers and the public from diesel exhaust fumes after the common workplace hazard was confirmed as a proven cause of cancer in humans.
15 June 2012