A clear understanding of the importance of workplace exposure limits, the COSHH regulations and the Health and Safety Executives EH40 is essential for all UK businesses and those responsible for workplace safety if they are to safeguard the health of their employees and maintain regulatory compliance in this important area of occupational hygiene.
What are workplace exposure limits?
Rules around workplace exposure limits or WELs are all about limiting the way in which people who work for a business come into contact with substances which could be damaging to their health. In the UK extensive guidelines have been developed by the safety regulator, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) and these form an integral part of the legal framework, underpinned by the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations 2002 (COSHH) legislation.
There is a wide range of industries which are affected by the COSHH regulations and workplace exposure limits. In the UK nearly every business will use chemicals and disinfectants to clean their buildings, furniture and equipment. Manufacturers commonly use paint, solvents, silica and metals. To protect people in the workplace it is the responsibility of employers firstly to risk assess the nature of the chemicals and other substances they are using in their operations, and then to take adequate steps to ensure their workers are not exposed to harmful substances at concentrations beyond the limits laid down by the Health and Safety Executive.
COSHH, EH40 and exposure limits
The Health and Safety Executives EH40/2005 Workplace Exposure Limits publication sets out the highest acceptable exposure limits for hundreds of different substances that may be used in the workplace. Some of these substances are very specialist chemicals which are only found in specific industries. However, you’ll also find far more common gases, metals and other substances such as carbon monoxide, wood dust and acetone on the list.
The COSHH Regulations don’t just deal with chemicals though. They can also cover issues such as dust, vapour, gases, micro-organisms and fumes. The three main exceptions to the standard workplace exposure limits are lead, asbestos and radioactivity, all of which are considered so dangerous that they are covered in their own comprehensive legislation and guidelines.
EH40 and long and short term exposure limits
EH40 provides two separate measurements for each substance listed (Table 1). These are long term exposure limits (LTEL) and short term exposure limits (STEL).
Long term exposure limits (LTEL) give the maximum exposure over an 8 hour period, the average shift time for a worker in the UK.
The short term exposure limits (STEL), give the maximum exposure to a substance over a 15 minute period.
The long term exposure limit or LTEL is about recognising that prolonged exposure to contaminants over a longer period of time could result in significant health consequences for members of staff. On the other hand, short term exposure limits or STEL recognises that there might be immediate health effects after a short-term exposure at higher levels.
Each substance has its own levels specified by the Health and Safety Executive. The limits are expressed in both ppm (parts per million) and milligrams per cubic metre (mg/m3). The full list of substances and exposure limits can be reviewed in EH40 Workplace Exposure Limits publication.
2018 update to the workplace exposure limits
UK workplace exposure limits are constantly being revised and updated as our understanding of occupational health and science progresses. The most recent set of revisions published in the summer of 2018, saw 31 out of the 500 plus substances given new limits along with the introduction of nitrogen dioxide and nitrogen monoxide, and a lowering of limits for carbon monoxide.
It is important to remember that it is the responsibility of the employer to keep up to date with changes to the exposure limits which affect their business. There is lots of information available from the Health and Safety Executive on their website, and in the trade press for specific industries.
There are hefty penalties for breaching workplace exposure limits and ignorance is no defence…
If your business uses an external health and safety consultant or specialist agency to manage workforce exposure limits for you, ensure that as part of the contract, ongoing support is provided to advise you as limits change over time. There are hefty penalties associated with breaching these limits and ignorance is no defence, so it’s important to ensure you have some way of keeping up to date with any changes that affect your business operations and the people you employ.
Carrying out a COSHH assessment
All employers who use any of the substances listed in EH40 – and there are around 500 of them – should carry out a formal COSHH assessment as a starting point. The COSHH assessment should involve an examination of all business processes to identify which operations involve the use of any hazardous substances listed in EH40. This will help to confirm whether all areas of the business are affected, or just some departments. Once this initial stage is completed the assessment process should then look at whether the substances being used can affect the health of workers, and in which ways. The final part of the assessment process should be to consider ways in which the identified risks to workers health can be reduced or even eliminated.
Managing workplace exposure to keep people safe
The main aim of any COSHH assessment is to control exposure well within the workplace exposure limits set out in EH40. This is not as difficult as it might first appear. For example, a business which identifies that the use of solvents might potentially be a risk factor for workers might decide to switch to using a water based product instead. The facilities manager at a site might decide to swap to using safer, eco-friendly or plant based cleaning products rather than bleach.
Another risk management strategy is to look at other ways of reducing overall exposure, even if it is not possible to reduce the levels of hazardous substances being used in some business processes. Again, this could be as simple as insisting that staff wear rubber gloves when using bleach based cleaners. It could also include installing a new local exhaust ventilation (LEV) system to pull contamination out of the air and replace it with fresh air from outside.
Procedures and processes to deal with workplace exposure limits
In the UK, complying with workplace exposure limits is not an optional extra, it’s a legal requirement. The safety regulator, the Health and Safety Executive will expect to see evidence of all COSHH assessments, and other steps taken to ensure the safety of employees and others in the workplace is managed correctly. Processes and procedures that need to be in place can be split into three main categories.
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