chemicalsWith the safe use of chemicals at work designated as the theme for this year’s World Day for Safety and Health at Work (Workers’ Memorial Day in the U.S. and Canada), the International Labour Organization (ILO) has issued a report on steps that can be taken to safeguard workers from toxic hazards.

Chemicals are not only found in a range of products – from pesticides to pharmaceuticals to cleaning solutions – they are also also critical in many industrial processes.

A broad range of effects

“However, governments, employers and workers continue to struggle to address controlling exposure to these chemicals in the workplace, as well as limiting emissions to the environment,” notes the ILO.

“Chemicals pose a broad range of potential adverse effects, from health hazards such as cancers and physical hazards like flammability, to environmental hazards such as widespread contamination and toxicity to aquatic life. Many fires, explosions, and other disasters result from inadequate control of chemicals’ physical hazards.”

More needs to be done

The report says significant progress has been made concerning the regulation and management of chemicals in the field of occupational safety and health, but more needs to be done. “Serious incidents continue to happen and there are still negative impacts on both human health and the environment.”

One challenge: it is difficult to determine the extent of health effects in the workplace related to chemical exposures.

“Because of the complexity of assessing mixtures of chemicals, strategies to prevent harmful exposure tend to focus on individual chemical substances,” according to the ILO. “This is further complicated by the fact that these substances can also be found combined with mixtures in most workplaces. They are rarely assessed or tested in the form of a mixture. Standards for individual chemicals routinely address problems with a single chemical.

This substance-by-substance approach is inadequate because most workers are exposed to mixtures of chemicals rather than individual substances.

How to link health effects to a decades-old exposure

“Furthermore, efforts to establish the connection between an exposure to chemicals 20 years ago and a case of cancer today have also been hampered by lack of information about the effects of chemical exposures. Record keeping on effects resulting from exposure to chemicals also needs to be improved. ”

The report calls on governments, employers, workers and their organizations to collaborate in the development and implementation of national policies and strategies aimed at the sound management of chemicals at work. These must comprehensively and simultaneously address the health, safety, and environmental aspects related to the production and use of chemicals. The idea is to maintain the benefits achieved through the production and use of chemicals while minimizing workers’ exposure as well as the emission of chemicals into the environment through national and international action.

“A coherent global response is necessary to coordinate the continuous scientific and technological progress, the growth in chemicals production and changes in the organization of work. Likewise, new tools need to be developed to provide readily available information about chemical hazards and risk, and associated preventive and protective measures.”