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The use of harmful chemicals and other substances hazardous to health is usually somewhat limited in Churches and Places of worship but the safe use of chemicals and substances nevertheless needs to be considered.

Items such as cleaning fluids and materials used during maintenance works are often the only substances being used, but there might still be a risk to people's health and well-being when they are using these chemicals if control measures are not taken to reduce the risk. 

Some harmful agents might be encountered within the building structure, such as Asbestos and there are also pathogens that might need to be considered, such as bacteria in water systems.

Harmful to Health

Substances can be responsible for a number of different health conditions or affect people's safety.  Included in the list of problems are:

  • Skin disorders, such as dermatitis and irritation
  • Asthma and other respiratory disorders
  • Chemical burns
  • Allergic reactions
  • Chronic conditions, such as cancer caused by repeated exposure to a substance
  • Absorption of a toxic substance through the skin, respiratory system or eyes

The effects of exposure to a harmful substance can be immediate (acute), such as a chemical burn, or be longer-term (chronic), such as dermatitis caused by continuous cleaning work.

Those substances that are hazardous to health are usually identified with an orange warning symbol that is placed onto their packaging.   However, these symbols are being phased out and will be replaced by red diamond shape warning symbols over the next few years. 

Many substances encountered have a raised warning triangle, intended as a tactile aid for those with visual impairments.

Harmful Chemical Symbol GHS Symbol

Above left shows of the common safety symbols found on a hazardous substance.  The symbol on the right is part of the 'The Globally Harmonised System of Classification and Labelling of Chemicals' which has replaced the older orange symbols, although many older containers still carry the old symbols.

There are many substances that are not classified as hazardous to health.  These include soaps and other chemicals that pose little or no risk to human health when used properly, and which do not carry any warning symbols.  However, these should still be considered as part of the wider Risk Assessment process.

Safety Data

The Safety Data Sheet (SDS) is a document that is issued by the manufacturer or supplier of the product.  Safety Data Sheets contain information about the substance and how it should be handled safely, how to dispose of the substance and other essential information (including first aid treatment and fire fighting methods).  It will not, however, contain instructions for use.

The information is usually sent with the substance but is also available online in most circumstances or can be requested from a retailer.  This document is used in the Risk Assessment to determine what precautions are required for using and handing the substance, and in fact should ideally be reviewed before purchasing the substance.  By itself, the SDS is not a Risk Assessment.

The assessment that is made of a substance or chemical is often referred to as a 'COSHH Assessment'.  COSHH stands for 'Control of Substances Hazardous to Health (Regulations)'.  The assessment needs to look at what the substance is, how it is used and how much/how often it is used along with the measures that are taken to limit the exposure to the substance.

A number of issues need to be considered in this assessment including how the substance is used, who is exposed to the substance, how much is being used and how often it is being used.  Generally speaking, the precautions listed in the SDS are valid, but should be taken as a guide only, as the exact circumstances where a chemical is used will affect the validity of the manufacturer's recommendations.

Effects on health

Substances can enter, or affect, the body in different ways:

  • Contact with the skin
  • Absorption via the eyes
  • Respiration of dusts, vapours, fumes and gases
  • Puncture through the skin or entry through an open wound
  • Ingestion (eating)

A common problem is people failing to wash their hands after handling a substance.  If the person then eats, drinks or smokes with the substance on their hands, the chemical then enters the body. 

Similarly, rubbing the eyes and the parts of the face near the eyes and nose can transfer the substance into the eyes or nose, where blood vessels are very close to the skin surface.  These areas are more vulnerable and some substances can enter the body through these areas.

Some substances might also be flammable or could create an explosive atmosphere and this too should be considered as part of the assessment.

Other substances might also have a harmful effect on the environment, and this should be considered too.  The safety data sheet will include important information on the flammability and  procedures for the substance that need to be followed in the event of emergency situations.

While this assessment must be in writing if there are five or more employees, it is recommended to always keep the significant findings of all assessments written down.  This information should be made available to staff and volunteers using the substances.  Additional training and instruction might be beneficial in some situations.

Safety measures

It is considered best practice that the chemicals and substances that are used within a Church or Place of Worship should be kept in a secure place, away from members of the public and out of the reach of children.  It is highly recommended that this is a lockable cupboard. 

All chemicals should remain in their original containers, or otherwise containers as supplied by the manufacturer and appropriately labelled.  Alternatively, other suitable containers, which are suitable for the contents, may be used but must be marked appropriately.  Containers which are commonly used for other things - such as jam jars and pop bottles - are not usually considered appropriate owing to the possibility of mistaken identify.

It is preferable to restrict the use of harmful substances where a alternative exists which could be used to lower the risk.  For example, remove bleach and use a proprietary toilet cleaner fluid which does not have a hazard symbol on the pack.

It is recommended that flammable substances are avoided for reasons of fire safety.  Such flammable substances include petrol, paraffin and bottled gas and even aerosol sprays such as air-fresheners.

Note that many garden chemicals that are intended for 'home garden use only' and might not be suitable for use within a Church or Place of Worship.

One of the most common precautions that are put into place for many low-risk substances is 'Personal Protective Equipment'.  It would be common to supply disposable gloves to those handling cleaning fluids, but some substances might require additional protective equipment.  Further advice is found in the data sheet for the substance.  However, it should always be noted that Personal Protective Equipment should only be used as a last measure.

Biological hazards

In addition to chemicals, it is also important to consider the exposure of biological agents, such as bacteria, fungal spores and micro-organisms, including Legionella (the cause of legionaries disease).

Legionella and other related waterborne diseases can be caught by breathing in droplets of water that carry bacteria.  It cannot be transferred from person to person. Specific areas of concern within Churches and Places of Worship are with water systems and some types of air conditioning equipment.

The bacteria will not survive above 45 degrees Celsius and the hot water at taps should be above this level after a short period of time (usually 60 seconds).  Typically boilers would be set to a temperature some 20C warmer than this.  Cold water taps should be below 20C and care is needed to insulate pipes when they run close to hot water pipes and heating systems.

Water should be regularly run from taps that would not otherwise be used, and this could be part of the routine cleaning schedule.  The system should be inspected for disused branch pipes ('dead legs'), which should be removed or reduced to the shortest possible length.  Water storage tanks might need occasional antibacterial treatment.

Air conditioning systems should be routinely serviced and cleaned, no matter of the system type.  This should include the cleaning of filters and, in the case of 'wet' systems, treatment with an antibacterial substance to control the bacteria in the system. The company that performs this servicing will advise on any specific precautions you need to take such as antibacterial treatments.

Care is needed also when working near bird faeces (especially pigeons) which can cause 'psittacosis', a pneumonia-like disease.  In addition to this, 'Leptospirosis' (also known as 'Weil's Disease') can be a concern for those working in locations where vermin are, or have been, present.  It is also important to be aware of diseases that could be picked up from contact with human bodily fluids, especially for those people who might have to clear up spillages or perform maintenance work on drainage systems.

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