Common breathing hazards

Understanding the risks from exposure and how to control these, including Respiratory Protective Equipment

​​​Work processes may involve the use of a variety of chemicals and substances that can create fumes, dusts and other substances.

Breathing in hazardous substances at work can put your employees' health at risk and may cause a range of respiratory diseases and conditions from asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and cancers​.

It can also cause other diseases of the airways and lungs – for example, airway obstruction, bronchitis or lung cancers. As well as this, it can cause cancer in other parts of the body, nervous system diseases and disorders of reproductive organs.​

​The health of your workforce could be put at risk if they use or are exposed to substances labelled as:

  • irritant
  • corrosive
  • harmful
  • toxic or very toxic

Your employees may be exposed to by-products from work activities such as:

  • spraying
  • grinding or cutting
  • welding or soldering
  • brushing or cleaning processes

These can create hazardous amounts of:

  • gas – such as chlorine or carbon monoxide
  • spray or mist – such as paint and epoxy sprays or acid mists
  • fumes – such as welding, hot rubber, soldering or galvanising fumes
  • liquid – such as chemicals, degreasing solvent or cleaning chemicals
  • vapour – such as solvent vapour released from adhesives, paints or inks
  • dust, powder or paste – such as wood, cement, metal, flour, grain, rubber or stone dust

This risk of harm may be increased if any of your employees have pre-existing health conditions such as asthma. Workers can also become sensitised to the substances they are exposed to.

The exposures can come from a wide variety of work situations such as:

  • dust exposure from sanding or grinding
  • decanting or mixing chemicals
  • using chemicals on rags or open containers
  • using the wrong type of respiratory protection (RPE)
  • not managing contaminated surfaces and clothing correctly
  • using local exhaust ventilation (LEV) that is damaged, has home-made modifications or is not designed professionally, maintained and tested

Who is at risk

You and your employees should be especially vigilant and ensure appropriate controls are in place if they working with:

  • solder flux
  • glues and resins
  • laboratory animals
  • chemicals in hairdressing
  • isocyanates such as spray paints
  • dusts – from wood, flour and grain

Carry out a risk assessment

If substances are used or generated at work, then a risk ass​essment should be carried out. This will determine if there is a risk to your employees or those who may be affected by the work activities. It can help you identify what controls should be put in place to protect them.

When using hazardous substances, the risk assessment is known as a Control of Substances Hazardous to Health (COSHH) assessment.

You will need to discuss this with your staff and consider how your employees could be exposed.

We have created a publication with guidance and a form to help you carry out a COSHH assessment.

Find out more

You can share the video below with your employees to help raise awareness and encourage discussion on the subject.