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Three common mistakes organisations make when managing hazardous substances and the legal implications

Three common mistakes organisations make when managing hazardous substances and the legal implications
  • United Kingdom
  • Environment


With an ever-increasing focus on the protection of workers’ health, the management of hazardous substances is arguably higher on the business agenda than ever before. However, many organisations still make basic mistakes when implementing COSHH (Control of substances hazardous to health) processes to protect staff from the dangers of work-related ill health.

Moyna Merrison, Director of COSHH specialists Alcumus Sypol, highlights three of the most common mistakes businesses make:

“I have a list of chemicals and how they should be used, so I’m compliant”

Understanding the substances that are used within your business is just half of the COSHH challenge. Every business needs to document what substances are being used and, more importantly, how they are being used. A compliant COSHH assessment needs to detail how a substance is being used, for how long, in what type of environment and what protective measures need to be taken. This information then needs to be effectively communicated to the staff so that they understand what precautions need to be taken to protect their health.

“I reviewed my COSHH assessments a few years ago, so I don’t need to do anything”

Effective COSHH management should be a cyclical process of continuous improvement – it is not a static task that should only be done once. Legislative updates, the introduction of different products or substances and personnel changes can all have a fundamental impact on a COSHH assessment. Businesses who are not proactively reviewing their COSHH assessments may as well not have any assessments in place at all.

“I’ve never had a COSHH incident, so my business doesn’t have a problem”

Ignorance is no excuse for failing to implement a robust COSHH management strategy. The symptoms of many occupational diseases caused by hazardous substances – lung cancer, occupational asthma, joint and nerve damage – can take several years to emerge. Therefore, while a business may not have had an incident to date, that doesn’t mean that its COSHH processes are effective. And if a worker develops an occupational disease in the future that can be related to a job they did in the past, their former employer will still be held responsible.

What are the legal implications of non-compliance?

One of the Health and Safety Executive’s (‘HSE’) current priorities is on occupational health, with a particular focus on occupational lung disease, given the disease leads to an estimated 12,000 deaths each year. Health and safety lawyer, Elizabeth Hyde, Principal Associate at Eversheds Sutherland comments:

“Under UK health and safety law the HSE simply has to prove that a company has posed a risk to the health and safety of its employees or to those affected by the company’s activities. The HSE does not have to demonstrate that actual harm has occurred. In light of the HSE’s current focus on occupational lung disease, companies run the risk of prosecution if they fail to properly implement effective COSHH processes”.

Corporate claims lawyer, Louise Bland, Partner at Eversheds Sutherland adds:

“Failure to carry out effective COSHH assessments will also leave businesses highly vulnerable to injury claims. Whilst injury claims are often insured, claims arising as a result of a poor COSHH management strategy may result in increased insurance premiums and more importantly threaten damage to brand and reputation”.

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