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Tackling the less visible risks from dangerous substances

Dangerous substances remain an area of occupational safety and health where awareness of the risks and ways to manage them effectively is low, especially in the case of less visible risks. The Healthy Workplaces Campaign wants to create awareness, bring visibility and share knowledge of the risks to protect workers from the often long-term health effects associated with dangerous substances.

EU-OSHA/Dmitry Kalinovsky

What are dangerous substances?

A dangerous substance can be summarised as any substance in gas, liquid or solid form, including aerosols, fumes and vapours that poses a risk to workers’ health or safety[1].

Currently, workers across a wide range of jobs and sectors may be exposed to a huge variety of dangerous substances in European workplaces. In 2017, some 129,000 substances were listed under CLP (Classification, Labelling and Packaging Regulation), and approximately 10,000 have been registered under REACH (Regulation on Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restrictions of Chemicals).

Addressing some common misconceptions

Dangerous substances aren’t just manufactured chemicals, they can also be process-generated or occur naturally. Dangerous substances and their mixtures, for example in a typical chemical product like a paint, are labelled according to the CLP regulation with symbols and a warning text. Safety data sheets exist for all such products.

Process generated dangerous substances such as fumes, emissions or dust and many naturally occurring substances like grain or flour dust, cannot be labelled. They are produced during work through processes like heating or mixing. Employers therefore need to seek other sources of information, for example sectoral guidance or instructions from suppliers.

The use of dangerous substances is not decreasing. This may be true for some very harmful substances whose use is banned or restricted (e.g. asbestos, PCB, mercury) but there are many less-well known dangerous substances used in workplaces across Europe.

Many employers and workers wrongly believe that tackling harmful exposures is not relevant to them. In reality there are very few sectors where dangerous substances are absent – more than one third of enterprises surveyed in a variety of sectors reported the presence of chemical or biological substances in their workplaces (ESENER-2 survey).

Tackling less visible risks

A typical example of a risk hidden in plain sight is that of construction dust. While the dust from drilling or cutting stone is visible, the long-term harm caused by invisible fine particle dust is often unknown or ignored. This invisible dust gets into the human body and can lead to respiratory diseases such as asthma or even lung cancer.

The UK Health and Safety Executive has developed a helpful guide on managing risks relating to construction dust. The steps laid out can also be replicated in other sectors and workplaces as they include broad measures such as prevention, control and monitoring processes.

Carrying out effective risk assessments of workplace exposures to dangerous substances is vital. And while it can seem complicated, there is a specific dangerous substances e-tool to assist in this task and a great variety of case studies and practical tools and guidance, available on the campaign website to help employers.

You can also keep up with the latest campaign developments by following the campaign’s social media channels on Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter (#EUhealthyworkplaces).

[1] For a more in-depth explanation of the dangerous substances related terms see EU-OSHA’s handy glossary.