COSHH for small business

COSHH Risk Assessment can be daunting for smaller businesses. Most of the businesses in the UK are small or medium-sized enterprises.  The same health and safety laws apply to small businesses as apply to big ones, with a few exemptions on written risk assessments and policy documentation for very small companies.  Note: these size-based exemptions are not exemptions from the risk assessment itself, but from the need for a written record of the assessment.

The basic principles of COSHH for small business (the COSHH Risk Assessment)

The Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations 2002 (COSHH) require that the health risks arising from exposure to substances hazardous to health are avoided where this is reasonably practicable or that they are controlled where it is not reasonably practicable to avoid them.  To comply with the principles of COSHH, the employer should:

  • Assess the risks to health and decide what precautions are needed.
  • Inform workers of the risks associated with exposure to substances hazardous to health and of the control measures to be used to ensure their health and safety.
  • Prevent workers from being exposed to substances hazardous to health or, where this is not reasonably practicable, ensure that such exposure is controlled adequately.
  • Ensure that exposure control measures are followed at all times, and are regularly checked and maintained, and that safety procedures are observed.
  • Monitor workers exposure to substances hazardous to health and carry out appropriate health surveillance, where the COSHH assessment has shown this is necessary.
  • Instruct workers in the use of control measures and the use of any personal protective equipment that may be required.
  • Provide suitable welfare facilities, such as washing and areas to consume food away from the workplace.

COSHH in a small businesses

Inventory of Substances Hazardous to Health

Many (smaller) businesses do not consider that they have any substances hazardous to health, often because they believe that this refers to chemicals associated with industrial processes.  In truth, few workplaces do not have any substances that are hazardous to health.  In many cases, employers overlook or do not consider the hazards associated with some substances, particularly those with which they are very familiar, and this is typical of COSHH for small business.  A useful way to avoid this oversight is to draw up a list (or inventory) of all of the substances that are stored, used or generated in the workplace.  This inventory must be comprehensive and should include: cleaning and premises maintenance materials, drain cleaning chemicals, waste and by-products (such as wood dust and welding or soldering fume) and diseases (such as Legionella).

Safety data sheets


The next stage of the COSHH risk assessment is to determine whether any of the substances on the inventory are hazardous ‘hazardous to health’.  This includes substances that are labelled as hazardous (i.e. very toxic, toxic, harmful, irritant or corrosive) under the CLP regulations or other statutory requirements as well as all substances that are identified as hazardous on the safety data sheet for the substance. Once the inventory has been created, COSHH for small business is a relatively simple matter to obtain further information about potentially hazardous substances.  Substance data sheets may be obtained from the manufacturer or supplier of the substance.  These substance data sheets contain, amongst other things, information on the hazards associated with the substance.

Safety data sheets are particularly useful for determining if a substance is hazardous to health and are amongst the pieces of information that must be made available to employees who are exposed to substances hazardous to health. The safety data sheets will also provide the assessor with information about the hazards associated with the substances to which people may be exposed.

In the event of a person becoming ill while (potentially) exposed to a hazardous substance, the safety data sheet can provide a source of information to the person treating the ill person, such as a first aider.  If that person needs to be sent to the hospital, then a copy of the safety data sheet should be provided with them.

Simplifying COSHH for small business

The COSHH risk assessment can be simplified in many cases by the simple expediency of reducing the number of substances.  Businesses should look critically at the inventory of substances and consider two basic questions:

  • Do I need to use this substance at all (avoidance of the hazard); and
  • If I need to use a substance, is there a safer alternative available (reduction of the severity of the hazard).

Once the number of substances (and their associated hazards) have been reduced, it is time to carry out the COSHH risk assessment.

Routes of exposure

Consideration needs to be given to how the substance could enter the body, e.g. by:

  • Inhalation (airborne substances)
  • ingestion (such as substances on hand when eating, drinking or smoking)
  • skin/eye contact (splashes, etc.)
  • invasion (e.g. entry via broken skin, injections, etc.)

Control measures to reduce the risk to employees (and others)

One of the main points of the COSHH risk assessment is to identify the measures that are to be used to avoid a hazard or reduce the level of risk associated with a hazard.  Employers must ensure that exposure to hazardous substances is prevented or, if this is not reasonably practicable, adequately controlled.  Ideally, this will mean preventing exposure by:

  • removing the hazardous substance, by changing the process;
  • substituting it with a safe or safer substance, or using it in a safer form.

Where this is not reasonably practicable, controlling exposure by, for example:

  • totally enclosing the process (such as a shot-blasting box);
  • using partial enclosure and/or extraction equipment (such as a spray painting booth);
  • general ventilation;
  • using safe systems of work and handling procedures (written procedures, etc.).

It is for the employer to decide on the method of controlling exposure.  The COSHH regulations, however, limit the use of personal protective equipment (e.g. respirators, dust masks, protective clothing), as the means of protection to only those situations where other measures cannot adequately control exposure.

Combining risk assessments to reduce paperwork

For small businesses, it is often sensible to combine risk assessments to reduce paperwork.  It is possible to create an “Office Risk Assessment” that deals with all of the general risk assessment issues, COSHH issues and fire safety issues in a straightforward assessment.  Although several pieces of legislation may require the employer to carry out a suitable and sufficient assessment of the risks to employers and others, there is no requirement for these assessments to be carried out separately and called COSHH risk assessment, general risk assessments or manual handling assessments, etc.  It is important that risk assessments cover all relevant areas is sufficient depth and detail.  If your current risk assessments (such as those that are required under Regulation 3 of the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999) address adequately all of the issues required under COSHH, then there is no need to produce new risk assessments to comply with the requirements of COSHH.  As with all other risk assessments, COSHH risk assessments must be kept up to date and reviewed in the event of any significant change or if thought to be out of date for any reason.


Small businesses need a considered approach to COSHH risk assessment, but must not assume that it does not apply to them or does not affect them.  A simple process would be:

  • review the substances present of site
  • assess the hazards associated with them
  • reduce the number of hazardous substances
  • replace hazardous substances with safe (or at least safer) alternatives
  • assess the risk from the use of the reduced inventory of substances
  • implement control measures
  • enforce control measures

The next stage?

If you don’t have the skill or confidence to do the COSHH Assessment yourself, then contact us on 01509 550023, and we can assist you with this Assessment.

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