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Biological agents, carcinogens and labelling

Biological agents, carcinogens and labelling


Hazardous substances include biological agents and carcinogens (any substance recognised as having a potential to cause cancer).

What law applies?

  • The Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations 2002 (as amended)
  • The Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2003 (as amended)

(Both are known as the 'COSHH' regulations.)

Biological agents

Biological agents include bacteria, parasites, viruses, cell cultures and other microorganisms. They're classified into 4 groups according to their severity, the risk of infection, how easily and quickly they can pass from one person to another, and the availability of treatment.

Biological hazards don't just apply to hospitals and research laboratories. Employees who have contact with poor, vulnerable or unwell people, such as charity workers and residential home staff, are also at risk.

Legal responsibilities

Under COSHH, you and your employees have to obey certain rules when dealing with biological agents, including:

  • Reporting accidents if the hazard has been released and exposed
  • Displaying notices of what to do if an accident or incident occurs
  • Providing free vaccinations to those at risk
  • Identifying particularly susceptible employees, such as those with a suppressed immune system
  • Examining and maintaining PPE to prevent biological agents from being spread through the equipment
  • Giving written information on handling certain agents
  • Keeping lists of employees exposed to certain agents — possibly for up to 40 years after the last known exposure
  • Notifying the Health and Safety Executives (HSE, or HSENI in Northern Ireland) if you intend to use or store certain agents for the first time, or notifying them if there will be changes made

You must also identify:

  • How contaminated waste is collected and disposed of
  • Hygiene standards
  • Measures for:
    • Decontamination and disinfection
    • Safe storage
    • Containment — showers, restricted access areas and specific disinfection

Carcinogens and mutagens

A carcinogen is any substance that has the potential to cause cancer. Hardwood dust is one example.

A mutagen is a substance that can alter chromosomes or genes.

The 5-step approach to risk assessments is vital when considering carcinogens or mutagens because it can take many years for the ill-health effects to surface. There may not be any early warnings of bad side effects and treatment options may be limited.

The risk assessment should identify if carcinogens or mutagens are present. If so, it should also identify the nature and extent of the risk. You must plan and take effective control measures and other precautions. If possible, don't use carcinogens or mutagens, or produce them as waste or by-products.

Controlling the risks

If it's not reasonably practical to prevent exposure by using alternative substances or processes, you must carry out other requirements.

If possible, enclose the process and handling systems. If this isn't possible, you must:

  • Use plant, processes and systems of work to minimise, or suppress and contain spills, leaks, dust, fumes and vapours. Systems can include partial enclosure, local exhaust ventilation (LEV) and general ventilation.
  • Limit how much substance is stored.
  • Minimise how many people are exposed, how long they're exposed for and exclude non-essential employees from areas where they could be exposed.
  • Ban eating, drinking and smoking in areas that may be contaminated.
  • Put in place hygiene measures, including adequate washing facilities and regularly clean walls and surfaces.
  • Identify areas and installations that may be contaminated, identify them with signs and prevent the spread of contamination beyond these areas.
  • Use safe systems for storing, handling and disposing the substance including the use of closed and clearly labelled containers.

You must provide suitable Personal protective equipment if the above doesn't adequately control the risk of exposure.

If control measures fail

If carcinogens and mutagens have escaped into the workplace, the employer must immediately tell those who may be affected. Only those carrying out repairs and other necessary work should be allowed in that area. You must provide them with suitable PPE, including respiratory protective equipment.

Monitoring health effects

It's normally necessary to regularly monitor the air.

A health check is appropriate in all cases of exposure unless it's controlled so that there is no reasonable likelihood of an identifiable disease or any adverse health effects.

It may not be immediately obvious to spot ill-health effects, so it's particularly important that you give information, training and instructions of high standard. You can't presume that there is no risk of cancer from exposure until you completely prevent employees from being exposed.

Labelling and packaging

Suppliers that provide dangerous substances and preparations (mixtures), including chemicals and animal and vegetable matter, must give information about the hazards on labels and package the chemicals safely so that the contents won't accidentally spill.

What law applies?

The classification, labelling and packaging of dangerous substances are regulated by the following regulations:

  • The Classification, Labelling and Packaging of Substances and Mixtures Regulations (EU CLP Regulations)
  • Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and restriction of Chemicals (EU REACH)

The EU CLP Regulations were introduced to harmonise the rules of classifying, labelling and packaging dangerous substances and mixtures in the EU, following agreement by the United Nations and the development of a 'Globally Harmonized System' of classification and labelling chemicals.

The above regulations have since been brought into UK law as a result of Brexit. The UK version of these regulations are known as:

  • The GB CLP Regulation

However, the EU regulations mentioned above will continue to apply in Northern Ireland.

As a result, classification of chemicals placed on the market in Great Britain are regulated by the GB CLP, with HSE as the overseeing agency. But those placed on the market in Northern Ireland are regulated by the EU CLP, with the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) as the overseeing agency.

What warning labels must include

If a product is classified as hazardous then the labelling is intended to tell the user what chemicals are contained in the product, what the dangers are when using it, and how to avoid them. The hazard label is made up of specific symbols (pictograms) and written warnings. These words and pictograms are decided by law and specific ones need to be used depending on what hazardous properties are in the product.

Safety data sheets

The UK REACH regulation requires Safety data sheets to show information on chemical products that helps users in the workplace to use them safely. It also helps you carry out a COSHH risk assessment as it sets out the hazards of the products, which then enables you to consider whether those hazards will arise in your workplace and what mitigating actions you can take.

You don't have to give safety data sheets to your employees. However, it's still necessary to give them all the information necessary to ensure their health and safety at work. This means that the information contained in safety data sheets should be made available to them.

More information

The HSE and HSENI websites have a lot of useful information including specific pages on:


Chemical safety data sheets

Hazard symbols and risk and safety phrases

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