Dangerous substances – meaning 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.
According to recent research, 19 % of EU workers report being exposed to toxic vapours for a quarter or more of their working time, while 15 % of workers have to handle dangerous substances as part of their daily work.
If the risks of using dangerous substances are not properly managed, workers’ health can be harmed in a variety of ways, with effects ranging from mild eye and skin irritations to asthma, reproductive problems and birth defects, and cancer. This can be through a single short exposure, or multiple exposures and long-term accumulation of substances in the body.
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. Legislation also governs the identification and labelling of the thousands of different substances that are registered in the EU market.
Reducing the risks of working with dangerous substances is not just a moral and legal imperative – there is a strong business case for it as well. Organisations can suffer when things go wrong, – through lost productivity, and increased liability to prosecution and claims for compensation -, as well as workers.
Fortunately, a large amount of guidance is available for employers and workers in dealing with dangerous substances. And across Europe, there are many examples of good practice to learn from.
By taking appropriate action, workers can be kept safe while using dangerous substances.
Employers are also obliged to provide workers with information on the risks posed by hazardous substances, and training in how to use them safely. Regulations apply both to marketed products and to the waste and by-products resulting from production processes.
- REACH (registration, evaluation and authorisation of chemicals)
- Classification, Labelling and Packaging (CLP)
- Biological Agents