Chemicals and Dust

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This briefing is for union representatives with members who may
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.


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