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COSHH online

Over the summer we have been busy developing a system for managing COSHH information for the Department of Chemistry at the University of Sheffield. This has been a particularly interesting and complex project. The requirement was to permit students and research workers at the department to prepare and submit proposals for working with chemicals, as required under UK/EC COSHH legislation.

To help ensure the system was easy to use, it was coded to allow access for the administrative staff from very early in the developmental process. As a result the client was able to provide feedback into the design and implementation at every important stage:

The COSHH form interface the information going into a COSHH form is exceptionally complex, covering the nature of the procedure, the chemicals involved, hazards and proposed mitigation. To be intelligible, however, the user needs to see the entire form at a glance. To do this a master form was built, that displayed key data, and this linked to total of nearly 20 sub-forms where the user could change parameters whilst being able to view existing selections in the master form.

COSHH form example

Above: Screenshot of the COSHH form, with a sub-form inset showing radio-buttons allowing the user to select the type of containment required for their procedure.

The chemical search interface building a simple and useful chemical search interface is a problem of itself. Users must be able to find the chemicals they are proposing to use, and this must be linked with the relevant health and safety information so that they can prepare an informed safety assessment. We developed a system based on chemical names and CAS numbers (the latter to help prevent duplication of chemicals on the database). Chemical searches can be performed by CAS number, name, name fragments or names starting with. In addition, at the request of the client we extended this to show a ‘most likely’ selection of chemicals at the top of any search results. The latter was important as there are many chemicals starting sodium – and if you are searching for sodium itself you don’t want to browse through all of them to find it!

The user interface was secured by IP address and login, as it is neccesary to identify users uniquely. Several levels of user were included, from clerical staff (with look up privileges to permit them to check that any chemical ordered had been subject to a COSHH assessment) to administrators, who had final say as to whether or not the assessment was acceptable on behalf of the department.

Completed COSHH assessments for each user were listed in their home section of the site. Additionally, each user could see assessments prepared by members of their group, or search for any assessment on the system by chemical or assessment number. This greatly simplifies the process of preparing a COSHH form, as existing forms can be imported to the user’s work-space and used as the basis for their own work. A simple security feature enables users to hide chemical information if required.

Safe working in an emergency it is important to be able to get access to COSHH information, so a brief output providing the salient safety information is available publically (protected by IP address) so rescue staff within the department can access the required information without having to login to the system.

Integration with existing information chemical and user data were imported from the existing system, and cleaned before insertion into the new web-based interface. Cleaning included checks for valid CAS registry numbers and valid user email accounts.

The administration interface is easy to forget given all of the rest going on – for a system of this complexity, however, the admin interface must be competent. The one we developed is capable of managing users, chemicals and COSHH information, as well as keeping tabs on how old the information is, and whether or not it is due for review!

With so much going on in the system, it was a great relief to find that users had few problems getting to grips with it. “The new users have had no complaints and the users who were familiar with the old system have had nothing but good things to say about the new one.” (Elaine Frary, COSHH administrator, University of Sheffield Department of Chemistry).

2014 extensions to the COSHH system