Safety Cabinets and COSHH Compliance

The Control of Substances Hazardous to Health (COSHH) Regulations 2002, requires employers to ensure any chemicals and dangerous substances used on the premises are stored and handled in a way that minimises the risks posed by those substances both to the environment and to those in contact with the substances

This is a pretty broad brush requirement when non-compliance can result in punitive fines or even incarceration. So how do you go about complying with COSHH? The answer, as in virtually all health and safety legislation today is Risk Assessment. You need to analyse your business to assess any risks arising from the storage and handling of any dangerous substances. Any identified risks to the people working on the premises, visitors or any potential negative impact on the environment- should then be actioned to minimise the risks identified.

In practice start the process by identifying what constitutes a dangerous substance. Any hazardous chemical should be supplied with a safety data sheet and the container should be marked with a hazard warning label. Typically hazardous substances are classed as toxic, corrosive, acid, alkali, explosive or flammable. If you see any of these labels but don’t have a related product safety data sheet contact your supplier.

The data sheet should detail any incompatible substances that may compound the risks if they are mixed so as a golden rule it is better to store in different COSHH or safety cabinets manufactured for that specific group of hazardous substances, Acids with Acids, toxics with toxics, and so on. Flammables are a special category and come under the DSEAR regulations but the same principles apply.

Within the actual workplace only store the minimum quantity of dangerous substances possible- for example enough for a days work. Store any bulk quantities in a separate designated secure area away from the workforce.

Any staff handling dangerous substances should be properly trained in their use and properly equipped with appropriate personal protective equipment. Needless to say in the aftermath of an accident you may need to prove this so keep up to date training and safety records.

If a substance is clearly toxic or otherwise dangerous if released into the environment take adequate precautions to prevent leaks and spills, for example by storing in cabinets with spill trays or sumps. Despite this precaution the risk of a spill is still possible so have spill containment products available to contain and remove spills before they leak into watercourses and drains or seep into land.

Risk assessment is about being honest with yourself when assessing the potential risks your business generates. Cutting safety corners may save money in the short term but may ultimately cost lives as well as your livelihood and quite possibly your actual liberty.

Hazardous Substance Storage

The storage of chemical substances – those that are potentially hazardous – is vitally important; however, whilst a flammable cabinet will provide a significant amount of protection against the effects of these dangerous substances, it is important to remember that some chemicals will need to be stored away separately.

For example, oxidising acids should never be stored with flammable solvents. Storing two incompatible substances in the same cabinet can result in disaster – causing the two to mix to form heat, harmful vapours, as well as explosions between the most volatile of chemicals.

When these chemicals are stored away it is also important to ensure that the container lids and caps are tightly secured – in order to prevent the substances from leaking out into the cabinet. Many will assume that because a storage cabinet is fireproof, it will also work as a corrosive cabinet – this, however, is simply not the case. Separate cabinets will have different attributes and it is therefore important to have the correct cabinet to contain the chemicals you intend to store in it.

See our Advice Pages for more help on the Chemical Compatibility.

Choosing the right Hazardous Storage Cabinet

Selecting the most suitable storage cabinet for hazardous substances can be confusing given the wealth of regulations that businesses are obliged to comply with.

To comply with the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health regulations referred to as COSHH, any substance that presents an environmental or health hazard if inhaled, ingested or through skin contact should be segregated from the active work area in a secure lockable cabinet that complies with the COSHH guidelines.

Generally this means a steel cabinet with spill trays for shelves and lockable doors.

The purpose of the COSHH cabinet is threefold

  1. To prevent accidental contact with the substances
  2. To contain leaking containers or spills from reaching the work area
  3. To prevent spills from causing any environmental damage.

The cabinet should be clearly marked with an HSE compliant Hazard Warning label.

Storing flammable substances is a different matter

Even though you could argue they are hazardous to health and the environment as defined by COSHH their storage is covered by more specific fire safety regulations, primarily DSEAR the Dangerous Substances and Explosive Atmospheres Regulations. There are other legal instruments and requirements for specific activities such as fuel depots.

Flammable substances should be stored separately in a purpose made fire resistant cabinet. Typically paints, solvents and fuels. As with COSHH the cabinet should be equipped with spill trays with a liquid retaining volume of at least twice the volume of the largest storage container in the cabinet.

Flammable storage cabinets are designed with double rebated flush doors and fully welded seams to prevent flames entering the cabinet. The purpose of Flammable Storage Cabinets is to segregate the contents from accidental contact with heat or flame, to provide secure storage, to contain environmentally damaging spills and leaks and to clearly identify their location in a fire emergency.

In the event of a fire the fire resistance of the cabinet is intended to prevent the flammable contents from adding to the fire although the resistance time is no more than 30 minutes depending on the fire intensity and proximity. The cabinets are not insulated and in a fire event with not prevent the internal temperature from rising for more than a few minutes. It is therefore important to use original containers and ensure caps are securely in place.

You should also be aware that there is a distinction between Flammable Liquids and Highly Flammable Liquids or HFL’s. HFL’s have a flash point, at which the liquid or its vapours can auto-ignite, at or below  ambient or room temperature of 32 degrees centigrade. Common laboratory HFL’s are acetone, ethanol and toluene.

More on the safe storage of HFL’s and the storage of chemicals and toxics in my next blog.