Using hazardous substances: Legal obligations on risks for farms

Farming is one of the industries that regularly uses and stores substances that could be hazardous to health, such as pesticides and fertilisers.

When using pesticides, it is a legal requirement to identify the potential human health hazards and then decide how to prevent harm by performing a risk assessment – this is governed by the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health (Coshh).

Employers must consider and prevent or reduce the potential exposure of hazardous substances to staff, contractors, or other people who may come into contact with them.

See also: Rule reminder – how to store fertiliser safely

Assessing risk

The Coshh regulations 2002 (amended) was implemented to protect workers by reducing their exposure to harmful substances.

Most pesticides use come under Coshh and, as such, all farms are required by law to have performed a Coshh risk assessment to cover its spraying operation and the hazards associated with each product used.

Therefore, a knapsack sprayer and a boom sprayer will need their own risk assessment, as may two different fungicide products, even if they are inherently similar.

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) stipulates no specific format for a Coshh assessment, with the requirements varying between organisations, depending on how they operate.

It is possible to find a vast number of example Coshh assessments used by various businesses online, but the HSE has example Coshh risk assessments on its website.

Information source

A material safety datasheet (MSDS) will provide all the information required to identify a potential hazard of individual products and should form the basis of the Coshh assessment.

The MSDS is usually found attached to product labels on delivery, or can be downloaded from the manufacturer’s website.

The label is a basic summary of what is in the MSDS, but the MSDS gives an expansion of the information on the label, including the type of personal protective equipment (PPE) or exposure controls you need, and is worth giving some detailed attention.

Who might be harmed and how?

Employers or self-employed people need to consider whether any person might be at risk from being exposed to pesticides.

They need to bear in mind how and where the product will be applied, how long it will be used for, how containers will be handled and the possibility of an accident.

Remember to consider:

  • Employees (even those not using the pesticide)
  • Other people on the premises
  • Anyone else in, or near, the area where the pesticide is used; and anyone likely to enter treated areas or be in contact with treated materials after the pesticide has been applied
  • Assessing how employees and other people might be affected will mean using the information printed on the product label and applying it to the circumstances of the work to be carried out.

In particular, farmers should consider the following:

  • Who could be exposed and how (through the skin or by breathing in or swallowing the pesticide)
  • Absorption through the skin from handling the concentrate or contaminated equipment, and from exposure to spray drift, is likely to be the main route of exposure for most pesticides
  • Breathing in a pesticide, especially with active ingredients that are volatile (evaporate quickly at normal temperatures) and from approved indoor uses
  • Swallowing a pesticide (possibly through hand-to-mouth or object-to-mouth transmission)
  • Whether the types of contamination listed above may also affect people entering treated areas or handling treated material
  • The extent of the exposure and what could happen if the control measures fail
  • What harmful effects the pesticide can have through the most likely routes into the body.

Deciding what needs to be done to control exposure

The next stage in the assessment is to identify which control measures are needed, and decide how to put these into practice, and then properly maintain them.

As an employer or self-employed person, farmers need to consider whether they and their employees:

  • Are suitably and sufficiently trained in using pesticides safely and using engineering control systems and PPE correctly
  • Manage the risks associated with the hazards
  • Understand the information on the product label and on any relevant data sheets
  • Have suitable equipment to handle, mix, load and apply the pesticides safely
  • Have systems or equipment (including PPE) that will prevent or, where this is not reasonably practical, adequately control, exposure
  • Can take effective action if equipment fails or breaks down
  • Know the sort of ill-health effects that could be linked to being exposed to pesticides and what signs or symptoms to look out for.

The Coshh assessment will also need to take account of any risks to people who enter treated areas or handle treated materials.

This will include, for example, farmers and growers handling and drilling treated seed and tubers.

It is good practice to give appropriate details of pesticide treatments to people who would otherwise not know about them (like members of the public and, in some cases, workers handling treated crops).

The Coshh assessment should assume these people will not know that a pesticide has been used and so will not know about any precautions they need to take.

Remember to give people enough information for them to do their work properly and be safe.

When farmer have completed their assessment, they need to consider the best way to protect anyone who might be exposed to pesticides by preventing the exposure or adequately controlling it.


It is only law to keep records of Coshh risk assessments if an employer has five or more employees, but it is good practice for all businesses to retain and file them where they can be easily accessed by staff.

Farms often have a turnover of workers, along with relief sprayer operators, so it is crucial safe procedures are communicated before any worker jumps on the sprayer and applies a pesticide.

It is a good idea to have a record of who did it and when it was done, because if something goes wrong, you could be taken to court.

Health and safety issues used to be dealt with exclusively in magistrate’s courts, but now sometimes make it to crown court, with penalties ranging from fines to custodial sentences, depending on the offence.

Reviewing the assessment

Under the Coshh regulations, farmers need to review the assessment regularly.

The period between reviews will depend on the risk, the type of work and the likelihood of anything changing. However, it should be reviewed at least every five years.

Farmers also need to carry out a review straight away if they think the assessment is no longer valid, or if there has been a significant change in the work the assessment relates to – for example, what the pesticide is used for or how it is applied may change.

An assessment may also stop being valid because of changes in the conditions of the product approval or the results of health monitoring.

Employer’s and user’s obligations

Martin Hare, principal lecturer and Basis pesticide legislation trainer at Harper Adams University, says using the simple acronym Estop can help users remember their obligations to ensure a safe pesticide application operation under Coshh regulations.

  • Eliminate Can you avoid using the pesticide at all? This could be achieved by using integrated pest management (IPM) to reduce reliance on pesticides – for example, growing resistant varieties
  • Substitution Can you use a less-hazardous substance and still achieve good control? An example of this would be substituting a product with a skull-and-crossbones hazard symbol for one with a lower hazard classification – for example, an exclamation mark
  • Technical Use engineering solutions to reduce operator exposure to the hazard – a tractor cab with an air-filtration system and closed transfer systems used for nematicides are good examples
  • Operator training All users of pesticides are required to have the relevant training and certification – this will ensure safe and responsible use of products on farm
  • Personal protective equipment Ensure that operators using pesticides have and are using the correct PPE relevant to the product being used

This article was updated January 2021

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