Chemical exposure for workers a “global health crisis” says UN briefing

brett mathews | 13th September 2018

GENEVA – Worker exposure to hazardous chemicals is a global health crisis claims a major new international report. Written by a UN expert, the report proposes a set of 15 principles aimed at helping governments and businesses protect workers from exposure to hazardous chemicals in global supply chains. Baskut Tuncak, a UN special rapporteur on human rights and toxics, will present the report to the 39th session of the UN’s Human Rights Council. It sets out findings from four years of monitoring the issues globally.

The report’s findings have significant implications for the global textile supply chain. Exposure to chemicals is a major issue for workers in textile mills, with production operatives exposed to a number of chemicals, especially those engaged in dyeing, printing and finishing. Chemicals based on benzidine, optical brighteners, solvents and fixatives, crease-resistance agents releasing formaldehyde, flame retardants that include organophosphorus and organobromine compounds and antimicrobial agents are all used in textile operations.

The new UN report says governments should ensure national legislation includes the criminal liability of employers and others responsible for exposing workers to hazardous substances. It also calls on investigations and prosecutions of such cases, ensuring heads of businesses bear responsibility along with other actors knowingly or negligently involved. How realistic such regulations are in the likes of Bangladesh and Vietnam is another matter.

It is also argued that, at present, many companies and governments are failing to meet a duty to uphold the rights of workers under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

Figure from the International Labour Organisation (ILO) suggest one worker dies every 30 seconds from exposure to toxic chemicals, pesticides, radiation and other hazardous substances.

“Everyone has the right to just and favourable conditions of work,” says the report. “Every worker has a right to dignity, to be treated ethically, with respect and without being subjected to conditions of work that are dehumanising or degrading. States have undertaken an ambitious goal under the Sustainable Development Goals: to ensure decent work for all by 2030.

“Despite clear obligations relating to the protection of workers’ health, workers around the world find themselves in the midst of a public health crisis due to their exposures to hazardous substances at work. While the World Health Organisation (WHO), the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and others have called for action on this public health crisis for decades, the global problem of workers’ exposure to hazardous substances remains poorly addressed.

“The most effective means to prevent exposure of workers to toxic substances is to eliminate them from the workplace. This is reflected in the good practice known as the hierarchy of hazard controls, or ‘inherently safer design,’ encouraged by ILO and national bodies concerned with occupational safety and health. In descending order of effectiveness in terms of preventing exposure, elimination is followed by risk mitigation options such as substitution with less hazardous substances and materials, engineering controls, administrative controls and the use of personal protective equipment.”

The report also suggests globalisation and the outsourcing of production to poorer nations has exacerbated the issue. It adds: “The international transfer of dangerous and dirty work, whether extraction of natural resources, use of toxic chemicals and pesticides or disposal of hazardous wastes without appropriate measures to protect workers against exposures to toxic substances, has left workers and their communities at considerable risk of grave impacts on their human rights. The lack of transparency throughout supply chains adds fuel to the problem and obstructs efforts by various stakeholders to improve occupational health.”

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