Proper handling of hazardous substances

What are the obligations of company management when employees handle hazardous substances? Where can practical information be obtained quickly? How can possible hazards for employees be correctly assessed and protection measures derived from them? Above all, who should take responsibility for these issues?

Proper handling of hazardous substances. Image source: Michael Ludwiczak -
Proper handling of hazardous substances. Image source: Michael Ludwiczak - -

By Michael Dennerlein and Claudia Kölsche, Umco

Hazardous substances are employed in different areas of work and activities, or are the product of a given process. Typical examples are cooling lubricants, adhesives, solvents, resins, paints and coatings, as well as dusts, cleaning agents and fuels. Their manufacture and/or use poses an increased risk of acute or chronic damage to human health and of adverse effects on the environment. In order that the hazardous properties of substances may be controlled as far as possible and people and the environment protected, a proper concept for hazardous substance management is needed.

While there is currently no legal requirement to appoint a hazardous substances safety adviser, a certain level of expertise for the risk assessment, for example, is expected. The situation is different with regard to the transport of dangerous goods. When certain volume thresholds are exceeded, a dangerous goods safety adviser must be appointed to oversee these (see § 3 Para. 1 No. 14 Dangerous Goods Transport Act (GGBefG) in conjunction with the Dangerous Goods Safety Adviser Ordinance (GbV)). However, dangerous goods safety advisers are generally so specialised and qualified in their own area of expertise that they cannot easily assume the burden of managing hazardous substances in-house. In addition, other sources of information must be used, the right structures put in place and in-house communications initiated on how to handle hazardous substances properly. Responsibility for this should be assigned to one person. Small and medium-sized enterprises in particular are loath to appoint a further officer to this role unless there is an express legal requirement to do so. Fortunately, a company is at liberty to organise its hazardous substances management to suit its own particular capabilities.

Tasks involved in hazardous substances management

Points of contact with hazardous substances can be identified at every link in the value chain and can thus be detected within a company. Where a hazardous substances management system is to be established, it makes sense for all responsible persons in the affected links to be included in creating the ideal design for the various processes involved. Holding a workshop is a good idea here.

Such a workshop establishes which processes are involved in the handling of hazardous substances and which of those are documented, along with the level of employee awareness about the issue within each area. The overall outcome is an overview of the current state of affairs and a list of specific actionable areas.

The next step is to implement the results of the initial workshop in the individual areas. The processes involving hazardous substances in each area are checked for legal compliance and aligned where necessary. Insofar as there is direct contact with hazardous substances, the specific hazards have to be highlighted and documented, and protective measures established and their application and effectiveness monitored.

Experience has shown that it makes sense to also verify the existence of a schedule of legal provisions and that it is up to date, as well as a process for managing legal changes. As environmental legislation is constantly evolving, it is important that reliable structures be established for regularly monitoring the changes and introducing them into the company.

Finally, an audit should be performed of how hazardous substances are handled throughout the company, with unresolved points documented and submitted to the change management system.

The steps involved in introducing a new substance

An analysis of the process involved in introducing a new substance reveals just how many small-scale actions there are dotted around the company which are essential for ensuring proper handling of hazardous substances:

1. The introduction of a new raw material/auxiliary or consumable requires the drafting of a detailed description of the specification for the required substance. This information can be used to establish if the substance is hazardous or not.

2. If so, a materials safety data sheet must be requested, at the time of procurement, from the supplier or manufacturer of the substance. To rule out any misunderstandings, this Material Safty Data Sheet (MSDS) must then be checked for plausibility against the specifications defined earlier.

3. Before the hazardous substance is included in the company’s portfolio, a substitution test must be carried out. In addition, all aspects relating to storage stability (packaging, quantity, additions, permit conditions) and disposal should be checked and documented.

4. Once the preparatory work has been completed, the hazardous substance can be entered in the schedule of hazardous substances. This entails documenting the substance’s designation, classifying its hazardous properties, supplying information on the amounts used and identifying the area in the plant where the substance is deployed.

The classification level may even require the creation of an exposure directory.

5. Before the hazardous substance can be used, a risk assessment must be carried out on the planned activities. Only when the required working equipment, operating procedures and personal protective equipment are available in full and training has taken place is the person in charge able to approve the work activity.

6. The protective measures and their effectiveness have to be checked at regular intervals. This serves not only to document employer compliance with legally mandated inspections, but also, and in particular, to raise user awareness.

7. Finally, recurring process steps should be formulated and scheduled as actionable measures: querying current MSDSs (recommendation: at least every two years); checking MSDSs for plausibility (ongoing); alignment of risk assessments with changes in working conditions (e.g. new machines, other quantities, other processes) (ongoing); changes to operating procedures (ongoing), training/instruction of new employees before starting work (at least once a year otherwise).


As soon as hazardous substances are present within a company, a number of issues need to be clarified. What happens, for example, if service providers have brought the hazardous substances into the company? Have the responsibilities and communication channels been described? Are preventive examinations necessary or available? Are there any overlaps with or impacts on environmental requirements (e.g. with regard to the German Ordinance on Facilities Handling Substances that are Hazardous to Water (AwSV) and/or major accidents legislation (Störfallrecht)? Keeping on top of everything here and initiating the right measures at the right time call for specialist knowledge and experience.

For this reason, although the Ordinance on Hazardous Substances does not mandate the appointment of an authorised person, nonetheless it very clearly and explicitly requires that the person(s) involved have appropriate professional qualifications. Any company which does not have the personnel, expertise or time budget to comply with this in full would be well advised to call on the services of external support for those areas in which it is deficient.

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