Protecting citizens from hazardous chemicals is in everyone’s interest

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

160 million people suffer from work-related diseases world-wide. [Horia Varlan/Flickr]

Hazardous chemicals are a vital part of many industries, but lax and inconsistent safety standards put workers’ health and lives at risk all over the world, writes Christian Friis Bach. 

Christian Friis Bach is Under Secretary-General of the United Nations and Executive Secretary of the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe.

Millions of workers are exposed every day to hazardous chemicals around the globe, in developing and developed countries. These chemicals are purchased and shipped from all over the world and differences in language and labelling could make them even more dangerous. However, thanks to a true success story of international cooperation, the danger is abating every day. This is worth celebrating on the World Day for Safety and Health at Work

In the European Union alone, up to 15 % of workers handle hazardous chemicals on a daily basis. And an astonishing 19 % of workers report being exposed to toxic vapours for a quarter or more of their working time! Exposure to dangerous chemicals in the work place can cause cancer, reproductive, mutagenic and respiratory disorders, permanent or transient damage to organs or skin diseases. Harm can occur either from a single short exposure, multiple exposures or by the long-term accumulation of chemicals in the body.

The International Labour Organisation (ILO) estimates that more than two million people die each year from occupational and work-related diseases and that most occupational diseases are caused by chemical agents. Globally, the annual number of cases of non-fatal work-related diseases is estimated to be 160 million. Aside from the human and personal consequences of this, the associated economic costs are estimated to be some 4% of the world gross domestic product!

While this shows the danger of this type of work, we must also recognise the many benefits these chemicals bring us. They are present in our soap and other hygiene products, our medicines, our clothes and even our food. They are also part of many industrial processes used to develop products that we use every day to make our lives easier, safer and more comfortable.

The international community recognised in the early 1990s that if chemicals were going to be shipped and used worldwide it was important create a sound global management system. This became the Globally Harmonised System of Classification and Labelling of Chemicals (GHS) – also called “The Purple Book” – and the secretariat was placed in UNECE. This system, adopted in 2002, has been gradually implemented by individual countries ever since. It is currently implemented, or is being implemented, in 68 countries around the world, from Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil and the US, to the European Union, Switzerland, Gambia, Nigeria, Senegal, Zambia, Australia, China, Indonesia and the Philippines.

Once a chemical is identified as carcinogenic, toxic or flammable in one country, it is identified as such in all countries using the system. The economic impact for manufacturers is huge since they do not have to conform to different classification and labelling criteria. But most importantly, workers in all these countries will enjoy the same level of protection thanks to universally agreed pictograms that identify the level of danger, from that of a skin irritant to a deadly substance. They are able to identify the hazards posed by a chemical immediately and apply the appropriate protection measures.

In the United States, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) estimated in 2012 that the implementation of the GHS in the workplace would increase the safety of some 43 million workers! It estimated the economic benefits associated with the reduction in safety and health risks at some $266 million a year, with an additional $585 million a year coming from cost reductions and productivity gains.

Last year, the Canadian government announced plans to adopt the system and estimated that it would bring health benefits of 30.5 million Canadian dollars per year

The Food and Agriculture Organisation and the World Health Organisation are currently implementing the GHS in the field of pesticides, which will benefit hundreds of millions or farmers all over the world.

With 68 countries implementing the system, we have already achieved major progress, but with 193 member states in the UN, we are left with 125 to go. I urge every country which has not yet joined this success story to begin the process now. Together we can make a difference in the protection of millions of men and women by significantly reducing the risks of dealing with hazardous chemicals.

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