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Päivi Jokiniemi and Paul Trouth
Article related to: Communicating about safety
Healthy workplaces – knowing and controlling the risks of dangerous substances
How healthy is your workplace? Are you familiar with the risks of the substances you handle and are they being properly managed? To make workers and employers aware about the relevant risks at their workplaces, the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work (EU-OSHA) recently launched a “Healthy Workplaces” campaign on managing dangerous substances. We talked to Ms Elke Schneider, a Senior Project Manager in the Prevention and Research Unit at EU-OSHA, to find out more.
According to the EU Roadmap on carcinogens, nearly 80 000 cancer deaths are attributed to work-related exposure to carcinogenic substances in the EU each year. Many of these deaths could be avoided by properly assessing the risks and controlling the substances.
What is the campaign about?
The campaign aims to raise awareness of the importance of protecting workers from risks due to exposure to dangerous substances and eliminate, or if this is not possible, manage the risks. It is the second such campaign on this topic organised by EU-OSHA.
In many businesses, in particular SMEs, there are misconceptions that they do not use dangerous substances, they are not affected by them and therefore there is no risk to their workers. However, experience shows that chemicals may be present at almost every workplace and there is a need to promote a preventive culture in companies.
According to Ms Schneider, about half of the diseases in the European schedule of occupational diseases are linked to exposure to dangerous substances.
In the campaign, a dangerous substance is considered to be any substance that poses a risk to workers’ safety and health. It can be in a gas, liquid or solid form, including aerosols, fumes and vapours and can include manufactured and process-generated substances, such as diesel exhaust or silica dust, and natural substances like crude oil or flour dust.
“Our campaign aims to raise awareness on how important it is to protect workers from dangerous substances and highlights the need to manage risks, providing information on good practices, guidance and tools. We should remember that a healthy workplace is not only good for workers, but also good for business,” says Ms Schneider.
Which sectors are most affected?
Almost every sector is affected as the campaign looks at all dangerous substances, not only manufactured chemicals. The scope of the campaign includes process-generated substances such as dusts or fumes, or substances of natural origin. In sectors with well-known exposures, such as agriculture, construction and manufacturing, more guidance is available.
“The aim of the campaign is to also raise awareness in those sectors where awareness is lower – many of which are service sectors. I am talking about hairdressing, cleaning, maintenance or the healthcare sectors. The campaign particularly aims to reach out to these sectors and help employers assess the relevant risks and prevent them,” Ms Schneider explains.
“We have just discussed plans with our national partners who help us implement the campaign, the national focal points and their networks, and will include industries that may have a regional relevance, for example, ceramics, leather, or aquaculture,” she adds.
Which groups of workers are at the highest risk?
The campaign not only focuses on specific sectors, but also on specific groups who lack knowledge and experience such as young workers and migrants, who may not understand the language of relevant training or instructions. Every profession has its specific risks related to chemical exposure, but some groups of workers may need specific support and protection.
“Young workers and women may be more vulnerable physiologically. And sub-contracted or maintenance workers may be at high risk, since they may be forgotten in risk assessments and working without tailored instructions. They may also be at risk as they have constantly changing workplaces, due to the nature of their tasks. We need to ensure they are considered and covered by preventive services, risk assessment, training and instruction, and protective measures,” Ms Schneider tells.
“We are cooperating closely with our national focal points, providing a range of information materials, and sharing tools and instruments to address these risks. For example, we developed an online interactive risk assessment (OIRA) tool, which helps SMEs carry out a workplace risk assessment and implement appropriate preventive measures,” she adds.
Can exposure to seemingly innocent substances like flour dust cause serious sickness to workers?
Just because a product has natural constituents does not necessarily mean it is safe or without any risks. All kinds of substances can be hazardous – for example, asbestos is a natural mineral but is known to cause serious lung diseases and lung cancer. A seemingly safe substance, such as flour dust, can also cause serious health issues.
“In our multilingual campaign guide, we have included a case example of a baker who developed serious asthma and a permanent work disability due to exposure to a high concentration of flour dust in a confined space. Flour dust is one of the main causes of respiratory disease in some Member States. While asthma is severe, there are also other symptoms affecting workers that may become chronic, such as rhinitis,” Ms Schneider describes.
Many EU countries have developed guidance on how to effectively prevent bakers’ asthma and they have run inspections and awareness-raising campaigns. This involves dust-avoiding work techniques, adequate local exhaust ventilation for some machinery and proper cleaning techniques, as well as innovative dust-avoiding flour mixtures.
What are the main steps for managing dangerous substances at work?
Employers need to carry out a workplace risk assessment and know which substances are used. They should:
- make an inventory of substances, including the process-generated substances;
- identify the hazards using different information sources, CLP labels, safety data sheets, sectoral guidance, or risk assessment tools;
- assess the exposure (the intensity, frequency and duration, and who is affected, for how long, and how often; taking into account any combined effects); and
- set measures according to the hierarchy of prevention (including an action plan setting out who will implement the measures, by when and any necessary maintenance or repair work for incidents). This needs to take into account any workers that may be particularly at risk as well as any training needs.
The workplace risk assessment would need to be regularly updated and, in any case, whenever an incident occurs or a health issue is reported.
“Employers must carry out a workplace risk assessment, consulting and keeping workers informed about what they may be exposed to and how to protect themselves. Sectoral guidance and a number of risk assessment tools have been developed, especially for SMEs, both by us at EU-OSHA, but also at a national level. Our interactive eTool helps to manage the risks and identify practical measures to prevent them and will be adapted to the national context in several countries,” Ms Schneider informs.
What is the role of REACH and CLP in making workplaces safer?
REACH and CLP provide important information for workplace risk assessment through the information on health effects and recommended risk management measures. More detailed information is provided in the safety data sheets and new classification and labelling requirements are in place. REACH and CLP also cover restriction and authorisation for uses of certain substances. At workplaces, mostly mixtures are used and all the other circumstances of work also have to be assessed, for example, safety risks, or the machinery that people work with. In addition, employers have to respect the hierarchy of prevention when setting measures at workplaces.
“Another important aspect is the obligation for suppliers and manufacturers to provide information along the supply chain. This helps employers carry out risk assessments and is a sign of how REACH and CLP have strengthened the link between those who use chemicals and those who produce them,” she adds.
Are workplaces in the EU healthier than they were 10 years ago?
According to Ms Schneider, the situation has improved a lot during the last years, but the landscape of health and safety is one that is constantly changing and presenting new challenges.
“We continue to share guidance and tools to improve worker safety, but there are sectors, such as the green jobs sector, waste management or recycling, which are growing rapidly and where new risks are emerging. Traditional risks can also come in different combinations and, therefore, new measures are needed,” Ms Schneider says.
“The use of chemicals is not diminishing, but is actually growing. For instance, nanomaterials is an area where guidance on worker protection has been developed and we are currently updating our existing information on this to keep up with developments,” she tells.
A healthier and safer workplace benefits employers
According to Ms Schneider, studies conducted by the European Commission show that for every euro invested in safety and health at work, there is at least twice a saving on costs.
“Companies with good occupational health and safety management in the workplace may benefit from reduced costs in complying with environmental legislation, as they pollute less and may save costs on materials and more efficient work processes. So this pays back in the long term. There is also a reputational effect for companies,” Ms Schneider points out.
“There are also wider positive effects, not only for the company but also for society as a whole. It is obvious that keeping workers healthy means there will be less human suffering and absences due to health problems and accidents. This not only increases productivity, but may also reduce social costs such as compensation payments,” she ends.
|EU-OSHA's e-tool (EU wide)|| |
Helps manage risks posed by dangerous substances in the workplace.
OIRA platform (EU wide)
|Platform with free access to interactive and sector-specific risk assessment tools.|
|COSHH Essentials and e-COSHH (The United Kingdom, but widely disseminated)||Easy, stepped approach to risk assessment and the factors that identify a suitable control approach.|
Database with product codes for groups of substances in common usage for the construction, chemicals, metals and other industries.
|Stoffenmanager (The Netherlands)||Structures relevant knowledge and information for different types of enterprises.|
|There are helpful tools available for risk assessment and prevention measures and many are listed in EU-OSHA's campaign guide.|
There is a hierarchy of control measures set out in the occupational safety and health (OSH) directives, which means that prevention measures should be taken in a certain order. The primary measure is the elimination of risk, for example, by designing a new work process and avoiding the use of a substance. If elimination is not possible, follow the STOP principle.
Interview by Nerija Jukniute
Published on: 17 May 2018
Top image: EU-OSHA
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Biocidal Products Committee:
26 February-1 March
Committee for Risk Assessment:
Committee for Socio-Economic
18-22 March (tentative)
Management Board meeting:
Member State Committee:
13-17 May (tentative)