Last updated: 14.08.23

COSHH: Identifying Workplace Risks and Hazards

COSHH: Identifying Workplace Risks and Hazards

In workplaces all across the UK, there are always hazards in play. Many of these are easily overlooked, can come in a variety of forms and are present in a wide range of workplace environments.

Examples may include hazards to safety, such as machinery or electrical malfunctions that could cause injury or direct harm to an individual. Another example may be biological hazards, such as bacteria or blood, that can contaminate a person and cause illness. 

Whilst these hazards may differ and fall into their own distinct categories, they all have one thing in common - they can pose harm to an individual, with the potential to cause serious injury or even death.

Hazardous substances are just another example of the type of threats that may present themselves to employees and employers in the workplace and risk their health and safety. Present in various places, such as in cement in building sites or in cleaning products in schools and care homes, they are one of the main types of hazards individuals need to consider whilst they’re completing their day-to-day work tasks. 

Whilst there are a number of health and safety regulations enforced in the UK to protect the well-being of workers, there is one that is specific to protecting their health when handling hazardous substances, which is known as COSHH.

In this article, we delve deeper into COSHH and the specific COSHH hazards and risks in the workplace, helping to educate you further on COSHH’s importance and how you can successfully identify, and mitigate the risks of, hazardous substances in a workplace environment. 

What is COSHH?

COSHH stands for the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations. It’s a legislative piece enforced by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) in the UK and is a very important principle in several industries. You will likely have heard of COSHH at one point or another during your professional career.

COSHH is centred around identifying the risks around hazardous substances, which are outlined by the legislation and will be touched upon in further detail below. The primary purpose of COSHH, therefore, is to reduce the exposure that employees have to these substances, as well as to provide accurate control measures in order to protect their health and safety.

The Difference Between a Hazard and a Risk

Before further delving into identifying defined COSHH hazards and risks, it’s first important for you to understand the distinct difference between a hazard and a risk. Whilst they are closely related, a hazard is anything that has the potential to cause harm, whereas a risk involves the likelihood of a hazard causing harm and the extent of this harm, if it were to occur. 

The two terms are interlinked in that they are both heavily incorporated in COSHH assessments and procedures, which we talk about more specifically later on in this article, to help individuals identify and assess the potential dangers within a working environment. 

What are Hazards According to COSHH? 

According to COSHH guidelines, hazards are any harmful substances that are either labelled as ‘hazardous’ to health or may be produced by a process within a workplace. For example, combining chemicals may produce harmful vapours if they are inhaled, or sanding may create wood dust that can have similar harmful effects when inhaled.

Equally, any substances that have workplace exposure limits (WELs) may also be harmful to health, and so are classed as hazards according to COSHH guidelines.

A range of substances and materials that are created during a process or are utilised within a workplace can be classified, according to COSHH, as harmful to health. When it comes to which hazards are covered under COSHH specifically, you can find a COSHH substance list below outlining the types of hazardous materials that can pose a risk to health in the workplace. 

  • Fumes
  • Liquids
  • Nanotechnology
  • Vapours
  • Chemicals
  • Mists
  • Gels
  • Gases
  • Powders
  • Dust
  • Biological agents
  • Microorganisms
  • Any other substances that have the potential to cause harm to health due to the way they are used, or because they are produced or present, in a workplace environment.

What Are The Effects Associated With Hazardous Substances? 

When exposed to hazardous substances, there may be immediate or long-term effects caused by the substance itself coming into contact with eyes, skin, being inhaled, or consumed. These effects can and may include the following.

  • Headaches
  • Chemical burns
  • Skin rashes
  • Disorders of internal organs
  • Asthma
  • Vomiting and nausea
  • Disorders of the nervous system 

Contact with hazardous substances can have life-changing implications for an individual. Therefore, individuals must be aware of hazardous substances in the workplace and should be able to identify them and the risks that they pose to stop these effects from occurring. 

What Is A COSHH Risk Assessment? 

A COSHH risk assessment is carried out in order to identify hazards in play and the risks that they pose within a workplace. Once these are established, the COSHH assessment will then assess these COSHH risks and hazards and find ways to control them to minimise the potential negative effects of these hazardous substances.

A COSHH risk assessment for hazardous substances is crucial in helping to identify hazards that are present in a workplace and the threat that they pose to workers.

How to Identify Hazards and Risks in the Workplace in Line With COSHH

COSHH risk assessments address an entire process, from identifying hazardous substances in the workplace to enforcing control measures that minimise the risks associated with these materials, put in place to protect the health of workers. As this article is only addressing identifying hazards and risks in the workplace, below we’ve outlined how to do this in line with COSHH guidelines and risk assessments.

Identify Health Hazards

The easiest way to identify any hazardous materials, and contact points with hazardous materials, in your workplace is by performing a thorough COSHH risk assessment. This will highlight where any employees may be coming into contact with a harmful substance. 

Doing a full inspection of your site will help you to understand how day-to-day operations can result in exposure in different forms, such as producing dust, fumes, or through physical contact, and how frequent this is for each staff member.

Check Which Tasks May Involve a Hazardous Material

Getting a comprehensive list of all tasks within your workplace which can result in contact with a hazardous material is crucial in knowing exactly what safety measures you will need and where to implement them. Knowing how often these tasks take place, how long the operation is, and the number of staff members involved are also key pieces of information you’ll need to take into consideration.

Consider the Risk and Impact

Knowing what sort of hazards are associated with the particular substances you handle within your workplace will help you to assess what suitable control measures will be. 

Checking the relevant safety data sheets and product labels on hazardous substances is essential in getting as much information as possible, but there may be cases where some substances don’t have any safety data sheets. Be sure to contact any suppliers if this is the case, as they can offer you as much information as possible about the hazardous substance, such as information on how to store it safely. 

If a substance also has a workplace exposure limit (WEL) then it will need more robust measures and back-up measures to ensure the risk level is as low as possible.

Review Previous Incidents or Accidents

All accidents and incidents which occur within the workplace are required to be logged, especially in the instance of hazardous materials. Looking over any events which happened over the last year or more to identify repeat issues is a good way of understanding the areas you should prioritise.

Once you’ve gathered all the necessary information from these points, you can decide on the necessary measures which will need implementing in order to comply with COSHH regulations, whether that’s control equipment which needs installing or controlling procedures which will lower the risk as much as possible.

Talk to Your Employees

As your employees are the individuals who will likely be coming into contact with, or be exposed to, the hazardous substances in your workplace the most, it’s important that you gain their insight to see if there may be any pressing concerns that they have in relation to the way these substances are dealt with in the workplace.


Which hazardous substance does COSHH not cover? 

Specific hazardous substances that are not covered by COSHH include the following: 

  • Lead
  • Asbestos
  • Radioactive Substances

This is due to these substances having their own regulations and legislations that control their use and presence within workplace environments to protect employee health and safety. 

Whose responsibility is it to carry out a COSHH assessment?

It is the employer's responsibility to carry out a COSHH assessment. This is necessary for all employers, and any who have five or more employees must also ensure that they record any findings of significance from their investigation. This record can then be accessed, if necessary, by inspectors or safety representatives.

Can all COSHH hazards be seen?

Not all hazardous substances are easily identifiable, and some may not be visible at all. For example, gases, in some cases, may be colourless, and so may not be spotted before they have negatively impacted your employees’ health. 


COSHH is a crucial component in ensuring the health of all workers who use, handle, or store hazardous substances in their place of work. Without this important piece of legislation, rules would not be as heavily enforced concerning hazardous substances in the workplace and there would likely be many more workplace accidents and injuries associated with the use of these materials in the UK. 

If you’re looking to learn more about hazardous substances and their risks in your workplace, our COSHH Training course is the ideal option to consider that will help you in minimising the impact that these materials may have on the health of anyone operating in your business.