Protecting the health and safety of employees working with dangerous substances

Health safety, work injury, Health and safety officer...


Protecting the health and safety of employees working with dangerous substances


A dangerous substance is any gas, solid or liquid that poses a risk to employees’ health and safety.

Although more common in some workplaces than others, they can be found in almost all organisations; in fact, in 2015, 17% of staff in the EU said they’d been exposed to chemical substances or products for at least 25% of their working time. 15% of workers also said they’d breathed in fumes, dust or smoke whilst working.

The health and safety of your staff should be your number one priority. While it may be difficult to avoid dangerous substances completely, this article will talk you through what the risks are and how to protect your staff when working around them.


Common dangerous substances

Dangerous substances are commonly found in a number of agricultural, medical and industrial workplaces. Those used frequently include:

  • Acids, such as carbon monoxide, ammonia and chlorine
  • Solvents, such as benzene
  • Corrosive substances, such as hydrochloric acid, nitric acid and sulphuric acid
  • Petroleum products, such as kerosene, gasoline and diesel fuel
  • Disinfectants, such as bleach, formaldehyde and thymol
  • Pesticides, such as fungicides, herbicides and insecticides
  • Glues, such as those used in leatherwork and furniture repair
  • Heavy metals, such as lead, mercury, aluminium and cadmium

If your business uses any of the above substances, you need to ensure you’re taking the right measures to prevent your staff from facing serious health risks.


Health risks

There are many risks to working with hazardous substances, ranging from mild health problems to more severe cases. No matter your habits for healthy ageing, some effects are acute, whereas others can cause long-term damage. Examples of the most common dangers are:

  • Allergic reactions
  • Poisoning
  • Skin diseases
  • Respiratory problems
  • Cancers
  • Reproductive issues and birth defects

It’s also important to bear in mind that some dangerous substances present risks to safety, as well as health. For example, certain substances are flammable and cause risk of fires or explosions, whilst others can cause suffocation.

But how do you stop these issues from arising?


How to protect employees from harm from dangerous substances

The first step in protecting your employees’ from harmful substances is to carry out a risk assessment to highlight any areas that could be problematic to the health of your workforce.

Once the risk assessment is complete, you’ll need to take all actions necessary to remove or reduce the risks to the best of your capability. Hazards in the workplace should be monitored regularly to ensure you’re always taking the most effective steps to ensure proper health and safety for your employees.

You’ll also need to consider any vulnerable groups among your staff, such as young workers or women who are pregnant or breastfeeding. These groups legally require special protection in the workplace. As an employer, you should also take into account untrained or inexperienced staff and contractors, as these groups will need to have prevention techniques tailored to their needs.

According to European worker protection legislation, there is a hierarchy of measures you should take when it comes to controlling risks from dangerous substances. The hierarchy is as follows:

  • At the top of the hierarchy is substitution and elimination. Where possible, remove dangerous substances by changing the products or processes in which they are used. If you can’t eliminate the substance, you must substitute it for a non-hazardous (or less hazardous) substance.
  • If you can’t eliminate or substitute the substance, you’ll have to prevent or reduce the employee’s exposure to it by using technical or organisational resolutions. For example, you could reduce the number of workers exposed to the chemical and make sure that the duration of the exposure is limited.
  • If you’re unable to control exposure to a dangerous substance using the above solutions, you should use personal protective equipment (PPE). However, by law, this is a last resort when it comes to preventing risks from harmful substances.


As well as following the measure hierarchy, it’s important to communicate with your employees to ensure their safety in the workplace. This includes keeping them informed about:

  • Emergency and first aid procedures
  • The results of risk assessments
  • Preventive measures currently being taken
  • Any hazards they’re exposed to and the risks involved
  • The results of any health surveillance or exposure monitoring
  • How to keep themselves and their colleagues safe
  • Who they should report issues to
  • How to spot problems and check that the workplace is safe



You have a duty of care to your employees to make sure they remain safe at all times during their working day. Whilst the above is by no means an exhaustive list of measures, it’s important to cover the basics if your industry involves the handling of dangerous substances.  


Read more about hazards in the workplace by clicking here.