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Dangerous substances

Dangerous substances. Two female workers in a laboratory

Dangerous substances — any liquid, gas or solid that poses a risk to workers’ health or safety — can be found in nearly all workplaces. Across Europe, millions of workers come into contact with chemical and biological agents that can harm them.

In fact, 15 % of EU workers have to handle dangerous substances as part of their job, and another 15 % report breathing in smoke, fumes, powder or dust at work.

Some highly dangerous substances — such as asbestos, which causes lung cancer and other fatal respiratory diseases — are now banned or under strict control. However, other harmful substances are still widely used, and legislation is in place to ensure that the risks associated with them are properly managed.

The risks to health

The health problems that can be caused by working with dangerous substances range from mild eye and skin irritations to severe effects such as birth defects and cancer.  Effects can be acute or long-term, and some substances can have a cumulative effect. Some of the most common dangers are:

Biological agents

Bacteria, viruses, fungi and parasites are found in many sectors. They are usually invisible, which means that the risks they pose may not be considered.

Workers in some sectors are in particular danger of being exposed to harmful biological agents:

  • Healthcare
  • Agriculture
  • Veterinary services
  • Cleaning and maintenance
  • Sewage and waste management
  • Gardening
  • Laboratory work

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Emerging risks

New technologies, expanding sectors and changes to the way work is organised can result in greater risk of harm from biological or chemical agents. In the environmental sector, for example, innovative technologies can entail poorly understood risks. To give another example, more and more workers are exposed to dangerous substances in service professions such as home care and waste management, where the exposures are varied but awareness of the hazards involved is low. More than ever, it’s vital that employers and workers understand the potential risks and take preventive action.

Find out more on emerging risks, green jobs and nanomaterials.

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Advice for employers

To protect workers from dangerous substances, the first step is to carry out a risk assessment. Then, actions should be taken to remove or reduce the risks as far as possible. And, finally, the situation should be regularly monitored and the effectiveness of the steps taken reviewed.

Member States have developed a number of models to help small and medium-sized enterprises to carry out a risk assessment. Read more on the OSHwiki page about risk management for dangerous substances.

Employers also need to take into account any vulnerable groups, such as workers who are young, pregnant or breastfeeding, for whom special protection is required by law.

Preventive measures

European legislation establishes a hierarchy of measures that employers need to take to control the risk to workers from dangerous substances. Elimination and substitution are at the top of the hierarchy of control measures.

Good communication

To ensure their safety, workers should be kept informed about:

  • The findings of their employer’s risk assessment
  • The hazards they are exposed to and how they may be affected
  • What they have to do to keep themselves and others safe
  • How to check and spot when things are wrong
  • Who they should report any problems to
  • The results of any exposure monitoring or health surveillance
  • Preventive measures to be taken in case of maintenance work
  • First aid and emergency procedures

Read EU-OSHA’s e-fact on dangerous substances and successful workplace communication.

Legal safeguards

By law, employers in the EU must protect their workers from being harmed by dangerous substances in the workplace. Employers must carry out risk assessments and act on them. They are also obliged to provide workers with information and training on dangerous substances and hazardous by-products. Find summaries of the relevant EU legislation.

EU regulations on safety and health at work are incorporated into national legislation, but Member States are also entitled to include additional or stricter provisions for the protection of workers. It is therefore important that businesses check the specific legislation in each relevant country.

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