Toxic chemicals action can benefit everyone

SUIT YOU? Wouldn't it be better for workers and the environment if we stopped relying on masks and 'bunny suits' and used safer substances and processes in the first place?

There must be new legislative and policy measures to prevent exposure to toxic chemicals, a new US report has concluded. It says this mix of mandatory and voluntary initiatives can deliver benefits for workers and the community.

Preventing toxic exposures: Workplace lessons in safer alternatives’ calls for a comprehensive, proactive federal chemicals management policy to identify toxic chemicals before they are used commercially and to require the use of safer alternatives. It adds while binding rules are formulated, there should be a push to promote safer alternatives.

In a related editorial, co-author Holly Brown-Williams of the University of California Berkeley’s Health Research for Action centre, notes: “Instead of waiting until a hazardous chemical has been released into the workplace and the environment, we should prevent the hazard by replacing or redesigning the materials, processes, and practices involved with it. This is a different way of doing business, which has economic as well as health benefits.”

She adds: “Occupational and environmental health are often treated as distinct so we manage them separately. Workers often get lost in discussions of toxic exposures. We forget that hazardous chemicals and products are made and used in the greatest quantities in workplaces — where they first expose workers.”

The report, published in Health Research for Action’s Perspectives series, says worker health and safety often takes a back seat to environmental concerns – but says solutions can be designed so they benefit those both inside and outside the workplace.

It points out: “Despite the obvious connections between workplace and community chemical hazards, we tend to treat them as separate concerns rather than different aspects of the same problem. As a result, we often fail to consider the special circumstances of workers’ chemical use: limited freedom to choose the products they use and much higher exposure over a working lifetime.

“By developing separate solutions, we also risk increasing hazards for one group while protecting another… And, importantly, we waste the rich knowledge and experience that workers, community members, and labour [union] and environmental advocates can contribute to more holistic solutions.”

The authors offer a six point plan to achieve this integrated package to protect people both sides of the factory gate.

1. Ensure that occupational health professionals have access to chemical use information in order to prioritise chemicals for the development of safer alternatives, pollution prevention efforts, and regulation.

2. Expand resources to support research into safer alternatives by health departments, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), universities, and research institutes.

3. Develop regulations that drive innovation and require the adoption of safer alternatives when available.

4. Ensure the integration of occupational health concerns into development of environmental chemical legislation and regulations.

5. Train workers and unions, and provide technical assistance to small and medium-size businesses about chemical hazards and safer alternatives.

6. Train more occupational and environmental health professionals in pollution prevention, safer alternatives, and the integration of occupational and environmental health.

According to Holly Brown-Williams, “when we consider the full cycle of chemical production, use, and disposal, we can see the direct links between worker occupational health and safety and environmental health and safety. By integrating workplace, community, and environmental concerns we can develop comprehensive solutions that better protect workers and communities from chemical hazards without shifting harm from one group to another.”

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