World Day 2014: Safety and Health in the Use of Chemicals at Work


Safety and health in the use of chemicals at work is the theme for the ILO World Day for safety and health at work in 2014, celebrated on April 28. 

Chemicals are essential for modern life, but can be a danger to workers. Some of these dangers are well known, others less so. Ideally, the exposure of workers to dangerous substances should be eliminated, but often chemicals have to be managed in the workplace, just like any workplace hazard, to reduce the risk to workers. 

A chemical is defined by ILO Convention no. 170 (1990) on safety in the use of chemicals at work as "chemical elements and compounds, and their mixtures, whether natural or synthetic such as those obtained through production process". Hazardous chemicals are classified according to the type and degree of their intrinsic health and physical hazards. 

Use of chemicals at work is defined by the same Convention as any work activity which may expose a worker to a chemical, including during the production, handling, storage, transport, and disposal of chemicals.

The impact of chemical exposures on workers' health is enormous. While the calculation of the numbers harmed by chemicals is difficult (for example because of latency periods between exposure to the chemical and developing ill-health), it is estimated that in 2004 there were 4 900 000 deaths attributable to environmental exposure and management of selected chemicals. This figure includes both occupational and non-occupational exposures such as indoor smoke from solid fuel use.

The European Union has a legal framework for the prevention of harm to workers from chemicals. EU Directives are transposed into law in every Member State to establish a common framework and minimum standards.

The Framework Directive on Safety and Health at Work (Directive 89/391 EEC) adopted in 1989 guarantees minimum safety and health requirements throughout Europe. The Directive sets out the basic legal requirements on employers and workers, and establishes a hierarchy of prevention measures.

Directive 98/24/EC of 7 April 1998 on the protection of the health and safety of workers from the risks related to chemical agents at work aims to lay down minimum requirements for the protection of workers from risks to their safety and health arising, or likely to arise, from the effects of chemical agents that are present at the workplace or as a result of any work activity involving chemical agents. This directive focuses the basic structure of the framework and makes specific provision for addressing the risks from chemical substances. There are also specific directives addressing the themes of asbestos and of carcinogens and mutagens.

At EU-OSHA, there is a large collection of information on the dangers of chemicals and the prevention of harm to workers. Some of the work focuses on cutting edge topics such as nanotechonologies, other materials consider how specific groups and sectors may be affected.

The European Agency for Safety and Health at Work is working with its tripartite partners to ensure the safe use of chemicals across Europe, maintaining the benefits acheived through the production and use of chemicals while minimising worker exposures and supporting the developmen of global and European comprehensive approaches in this complex work area.