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How manufacturers can prepare for unannounced metalworking health and safety inspections

AuthorsMatt ColesHannah Hobson

6 min read

Health & Safety

How manufacturers can prepare for unannounced metalworking health and safety inspections

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) will conduct unannounced inspections of manufacturing businesses that use metalworking fluids or coolants as part of their machining processes from October 2023 to March 2024 in an effort to prevent skin and lung damage to workers.

Between 2021 and 2022, an estimated 47,000 UK workers were suffering from a new or existing work-related breathing or lung issue.

Here, Senior Associate and health and safety law specialist Matthew Coles and Solicitor Hannah Hobson explain how manufacturers can prepare for these inspections and reduce risk of harm.


What will be inspected?

The inspections will form part of the ‘Machinist and metalworking fluid — Work Right to Keep Britain Safe’ campaign and will assist the HSE in understanding how manufacturing businesses are keeping workers protected from exposure to metalworking fluids and mist.

This follows its recent announcement of inspections at construction sites. As part of the inspections, the HSE will also be looking at whether employers have regular health checks in place for their workers.

The HSE has the power to attend business premises without warning to conduct an inspection. Should the inspector identify what they consider to be a material breach of health and safety law, they’re permitted to take enforcement action against the business. This may include issuing notices of contravention, improvement notices (requiring certain actions to be taken within a specified time period) or prohibition notices (prohibiting certain activities). The HSE may also consider it necessary to continue investigating the business and could prosecute if the breaches identified are significant.

A fee for intervention (currently charged at a rate of £166 per hour) must be paid by businesses to cover HSE inspectors’ time spent investigating and taking enforcement action if a material breach is found. Additionally, any enforcement action will be noted on the business’ compliance record and would be considered an aggravating feature should there be future incidents of non-compliance.


Working with metalworking fluids

Metalworking fluids and mist — also known as ‘white water’ — are neat oils or water-based fluids that occur during computer numerical control (CNC) machinery. Exposure to such substances can be dangerous, especially if the fluids and mist are inhaled, ingested or have direct contact with unprotected skin.

If an operator inhales the mist, there is a risk of developing lung diseases such as occupational asthma, bronchitis and hypersensitivity pneumonitis. Exposure to the skin can also cause irritation or dermatitis.

The HSE reports that breathing problems within the workforce are a growing concern. There are thought to be between 1,500 to 3,000 new cases of work-related asthma each year. While it’s unclear how many cases arise due to exposure to metalworking fluids or mists, as the risks are known, businesses will be expected to limit and control exposure as much as possible.

Under the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations (COSHH), employers are required to ensure that exposure to harmful substances is prevented or controlled. Where it’s reasonably practical to do so, exposure to metalworking fluid should be prevented. If this is impossible, exposure must be adequately controlled.


Three common compliance failures

According to the HSE, manufacturing businesses working with metalworking fluids often fail to demonstrate compliance in three common areas:

1. Failing to have local exhaust ventilation (LEV) in place.

2. Failing to regularly conduct fluid quality checks.

3. Failing to regularly undertake worker health checks for lung and skin conditions.

To limit and control exposure to metalworking fluid and mist, it’s recommended that LEV is fitted to CNC machinery — either as a standalone unit or centralised system.

The HSE advises that machines should be enclosed as much as possible and any extracted air routed outside of the building. To ensure that the risks are controlled and reduced, employers should continue to assess and maintain the LEV on a regular basis, including every time it’s used. It should be thoroughly tested by a competent person at least once every 14 months.

Employers should also regularly check metalworking fluids to ensure that quality hasn’t been compromised. If metalworking fluids remain in the machine for a period of time, bacteria may grow, which can impact the quality of the fluid and performance of the machine. Employers should check the pH and bacterial levels by carrying out a visual and odour check of the concentration, pH and dipslides on a daily and weekly basis.

Health checks and surveillance should be undertaken by a responsible person on a regular basis, even where control measures are implemented. If an employee appears to have been affected by exposure or presents any symptoms or ill health from metalworking, they should be promptly referred to a competent occupational health professional.


How to prepare for a HSE inspection — six key steps

By reviewing policies and procedures now, manufacturers can ensure a positive outcome from any potential HSE visit during the current campaign.

Think about:

1. Reviewing risk assessments to ensure that they are up to date and address all current hazards.

2. Ensuring that control measures are fit for purpose and adequately remove or mitigate risk.

3. Ensuring that health surveillance checks with occupational health professionals have been conducted and future checks are scheduled.

4. Ensuring that safe working practices can be demonstrated in all areas and LEVs installed on CNC machines are appropriately maintained.

5. Regularly conducting fluid quality checks.

6. Accurately documenting all health and safety steps and actions.

It’s important to remember that a breach of health and safety law arises when there is an inadequately controlled RISK of harm — even if no actual harm has occurred.


Talk to us

The HSE’s latest campaign should act as a reminder to all employers in the manufacturing sector that the use of metalworking fluids or coolants as part of their machining processes is an important area that should be regularly monitored and reviewed to ensure full compliance, the safety of employees and readiness for any unannounced inspections.

If you need any help in reviewing your arrangements or obtaining legal advice, our expert health and safety law team can help.

We offer a preventative, proactive approach to health and safety matters to help safeguard your people and organisation, avoid an investigation and — where possible — minimise or mitigate the risk of enforcement.

We support manufacturing companies on all aspects of health and safety law and practice, providing advice and consultancy, gap analysis and compliance, strategic advice and legal opinion, as well as training and briefings.

If the worst happens, we’re also experts in crisis management and can support clients through regulatory investigations and interventions, including enforcement action or prosecution.

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