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Exposure to Chemicals and Industrial Disease

View profile for Malcolm Underhill
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Chemicals and other hazardous substances such as asbestos and lead have been responsible for human disease for thousands of years.  However, since the Industrial Revolution, cases have become prolific, with hundreds of people suffering every year from occupational diseases caused by chemicals.

Hazardous substances are used in many industries. Cleaners, hairdressers, garden workers, farm workers, lab technicians, manufacturers, pest-controllers, painters and decorators and countless others all use chemicals in their day-to-day work. And if their exposure is not carefully controlled they run the risk of developing a serious disease.


Most people do not realise that even if the use of chemicals (including dyes and solvents) is necessary to complete tasks throughout the course of their working day, an employer can be ordered to pay compensation if staff suffer injury or harm as a result of using particular substances. 

The consequences of chemical-related disease

Exposure to chemicals can cause harm in many ways and on a variety of levels.  For example, hairdressers can suffer pain and disfiguration caused by dermatitis.  Factory workers can succumb to chemical poisoning if their protective gear is inadequate or the area where the chemicals are used does not have proper ventilation.

Chemical poisoning can affect many areas of the body.  It can cause skin damage, neurological disorders, damage to the stomach, kidneys, eyes and respiratory system; it can even poison a person’s blood.

Studies have also concluded that exposure to some carcinogenic chemicals can result in an individual developing certain types of cancer; for example, cancer of the bladder.  Although some of the chemicals linked to bladder cancer have been banned in the UK for many years, compensation cases are still being brought, as the disease can take up to two decades to develop.

Recent studies have also found that occupational exposure to paint may cause an increased risk of cancer and asthma.

Wielders and printing workers working with chromium, a naturally occurring mineral that becomes carcinogenic when it is transformed into its hexavalent form through industrial processes, can develop lung cancer due to the exposure to the chemical.hexavalent form through industrial processes, can develop lung cancer due to the exposure to the chemical.

An employer’s legal obligations surrounding hazardous substances

Alongside the common law duty of care to protect employees and members of the public from exposure to harmful toxins and chemicals, employers must abide by The Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations (COSHH) 2002.

Under the COSHH employers must:

  • design and operate processes and activities to minimise emission, release and spread of substances hazardous to health
  • take into account all relevant routes of exposure – inhalation, skin absorption and ingestion – when developing control measures
  • control exposure by measures that are proportionate to the health risk
  • choose the most effective and reliable control options, which minimise the escape and spread of substances hazardous to health
  • where adequate control of exposure cannot be achieved by other means, provide, in combination with other control measures, suitable personal protective equipment
  • check and review regularly all elements of control measures for their continuing effectiveness
  • inform and train all employees on the hazards and risks from the substances with which they work and the use of control measures developed to minimise the risks
  • ensure that the introduction of control measures does not increase the overall risk to health and safety

To fulfil their duty of care around hazardous substances, employers must apply these eight principles of good practice alongside ensuring that Workplace Exposure Limits (WELs) are not exceeded. Exposure to substances that can cause occupational asthma, cancer, or damage to genes that can be passed from one generation to another, must also be reduced as low as is reasonably practicable.

If an employer fails to meet this standard of care and causes harm to an employee or member of the public, they can be liable for compensation.

At IBB, our industrial injuries team, led by  Alan Jolliffe, has the expertise and knowledge to advise and represent you if you believe exposure to chemicals or other hazardous substances at your place of work has caused you to become ill or suffer skin irritations.

Let us help you seek compensation by phoning us on 0333 123 9099, emailing us at or fill in our contact form.  Any discussions we have with you will be in the strictest of confidence.

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