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Health and safety concerns

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If you have health and safety concerns or unsafe working conditions including unsustainable pressures at work, our advice guides listed below will help you.

We also have a range of health, safety and wellbeing resources to help you in work, including information on our campaigns and other activities.

If you have had an accident or are injured at work, see our guidance on accidents at work and personal injury.

Asbestos was used in the construction and refurbishment of hospital buildings up until the late 1990s. Exposure to even very small amounts of asbestos can lead to cancer and a total ban on the use and import of all asbestos was introduced in 1999. However, asbestos is not a problem of the past. Despite being banned from use, many buildings that were constructed before 2000 still contain asbestos-containing materials.

Our guidance on asbestos provides information about the risks and management of asbestos in the workplace.

Sometimes you may be asked to temporarily cover work elsewhere due to staffing shortages.

If you are being redeployed in this way, please read our guide on redeployment and unsustainable pressures about your rights and your employer’s responsibilities, to ensure this is done safely. 

What are DEEEs?

DEEEs contain a complex mixture of gases, vapours, liquid aerosols and particulate substances, which are the products of combustion. The main chemical constituents of DEEEs include carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, nitrogen, oxides of nitrogen, various hydrocarbons and more.

Smoke from diesel engines may be blue, black or white. If a vehicle is emitting blue or black smoke, it should be taken out of use for maintenance, as the smoke emissions identify serious problems with the engine. Table 2 in the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) guidance document 'Control of diesel engine exhaust emissions in the workplace (HSG187)' identifies such emissions as representing a high exposure risk. The major source of workplace exposure to DEEEs is from heavy vehicles that use diesel fuel, for example, buses and lorries. Concerns have been raised in hospital settings about fumes from ambulances when queuing outside accident and emergency departments. The potential exists for these fumes to gather in indoor enclosed areas if they are near to open windows or external air supply vents into buildings and foyers.

Are there health risks associated with DEEEs?

As DEEEs contain substances hazardous to health, they fall into the scope of the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health (COSHH) Regulations 2002/Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2003. Regulation 6 of COSHH requires that a suitable and sufficient assessment of the risks to health that arise from exposure to hazardous substances is made and so is relevant to DEEEs. Regulation 7 also requires that exposure to all substances hazardous to health, such as DEEEs, be prevented, or where this is not reasonably practicable, adequately controlled.
The HSE guidance, 'Control of diesel engine exhaust emissions in the workplace HSG187' and 'Vehicle exhaust fumes SR14' provide practical advice on how to control exposure to DEEEs in the workplace, and protect the health of employees and others who may be exposed. This guidance does not advise allowing engines to idle for extended periods of time, but is written with indoor workplaces in mind, such as repair workshops. The focus should include any parts of buildings where there is fume ingress, and semi-enclosed areas such as canopies and foyers where the design of the building makes it harder for fumes to disperse naturally. Areas fully open to the atmosphere are unlikely to be problematic and would be similar to standing next to a busy road when there’s a traffic jam.

Information for employees

Your employer should provide you with specific information on DEEEs, which includes communicating the findings of risk assessments, and should cover:  

  • hazards associated with diesel fumes 
  • control measures they are putting in place to prevent/reduce exposure 
  • how to report concerns.

If you have any concerns about how DEEEs are being managed in your workplace:

  • raise your concern with your line manager 
  • contact your RCN Representative and ask for their help and support  
  • contact us if you would like further support and advice.

If you believe you are being exposed or have been exposed to DEEEs, complete and submit an incident report.

Further information is available from the HSE: COSHH SR14

A hazardous substance has the potential to cause serious harm to your health. Some substances can cause asthma or other diseases, including cancer. Many can damage the skin, and some can cause serious long-term damage to the lungs. The effect can be immediate, such as dizziness or stinging eyes, or can take many years to develop, such as lung disease. Many of the long-term or chronic effects cannot be cured once they develop.

COSHH risk assessments

The Control of Substances Hazardous to Health 2002 Regulations (COSHH) and the Control of Substances Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2003 place a legal duty on employers to ensure exposure/potential exposure to hazardous substances in the workplace is prevented - or where this is not possible - adequately controlled. 

Employers should evaluate the risk from hazardous substances by the undertaking of a COSHH risk assessment, including:

  • how, when and where the substance is used
  • who is likely to be exposed
  • the potential to cause harm
  • the frequency of exposure and
  • the level of exposure.

The assessment should also include activities such as maintenance and cleaning, as well as emergency situations. 

The risk assessment should be carried out before the commencement of any work involving hazardous substances and in consultation with staff and/or their representatives, such a trade union representative.

Exposure in health and social care

In health and social care, some of the hazardous substance you may be exposed to in the workplace include:

  • infectious pathogens
  • medicines such as cytotoxic drugs nitrous oxide (Entonox)
  • chlorine-based cleaning products.

Hazardous substances can enter the body by:

  • inhalation
  • ingestion
  • injection (eg sharps injuries)
  • absorption through the skin or eyes.

Control measures could include:

  • eliminating the need to use the substance
  • using a less harmful substance
  • altering working procedures
  • engineering controls, such as local exhaust ventilation
  • where risk remains after other control measures have been implemented, the use of personal protective equipment (PPE).

If you have any concerns regarding hazardous substances in your workplace, raise your concerns with your manager immediately. 

Guidance can be found on the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) website, RCN Sharps Safety Tools of the Trade, and the NHS Staff Council Guidance on the safe use of chlorine-based disinfectant chemicals in the NHS

Our guidance on prioritising personal safety, outlines your employer's responsibilities to protect lone working community staff, as well as the steps you can take to raise and escalate your concerns.

Please see our advice guide on moving and handling about using correct techniques and employer and employee obligations.

Staffing levels can be a health and safety issue, particularly due to the current unsustainable pressures in the workplace and the increased demands placed on staff. Our guidance on staffing levels advises on:

  • employer responsibilities
  • staffing levels
  • reporting staffing incidents
  • raising concerns using our example model letters.

You can also see the RCN’s Nursing Workforce Standards. These apply across the UK to set the standard for nursing support in all settings and include guidance for all staff and standard checklists to help identify areas of staffing improvement in your workplace.

If you are concerned about staffing levels where you work, contact us.

Your employer has a duty of care to you as an employee and should not put you at risk. If you are unable to get to your normal place of work.  Our guidance on travel disruption and getting to work explains the health and safety risks you should consider.

Incidents of violence and abuse can impact on both mental and physical health. Employers have a legal duty to protect employees from violence at work by undertaking a risk assessment and acting on it.

You can read about your employer's obligations and what to do if you are assaulted in our violence in the workplace guidance. This includes:

  • what to do if you are assaulted at work
  • your employer's duties
  • third party sexual harassment and sexual assault.

Contact us for advice and support if you are concerned. 

Stress is not an illness, but it can make you ill. Employers have a legal duty to protect employees from stress at work by doing a risk assessment and acting on it. The risk assessment should be carried out in consultation with staff and/or their representatives, such a trade union representative. 

It may be necessary to make a formal complaint in writing if work-related stress continues and this could include the effects of unsustainable pressures in the workplace causing stress.

We have a range of managing stress resources with guidance and information to support members, managers and reps. 

Read our advice guide on working in hot weather for how your employer should take steps to protect staff when working in elevated temperatures.

Working time regulations apply across the UK with the aim of ensuring standards of health and safety in the workplace. Our working time and breaks guide will help explain your rights in relation to:

  • what is working time?
  • breaks, daily and weekly rest
  • on-call work
  • night shifts.
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Accident at work?

Read our advice on what to do in the aftermath of an injury at work.

Link to RCNLaw will writing service

Sick leave and sick pay

Read about your sick leave and sick pay entitlements, including absence management processes.

Bullying, harassment and stress

Find out how to tackle bullying at work, or deal with accusations of bullying.

Page last updated - 16/04/2024