New EU-OSHA Campaign to Tackle the Issue of Dangerous Substances in the Workplace

While many employers are aware of the dangers caused by insufficient safety precautions, such as those for preventing falls, trips, or burns, and try to improve the safeguarding against such accidents continuously, the real problem are unknown hazards.

Occupational diseases, which are caused by exposure to physically harming substances, are far more common than one might think. Long-term consequences often visualize only after many years and therefore can slip fatality and injury statistics.

As a result, there has been little effort in decreasing the threats dangerous substances pose to workers' health and safety. Seventeen percent of European workers report being exposed to chemicals for at least a quarter of their working time – a figure that hasn't changed since 2000.

Now, the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work is taking steps to bring down the numbers of victims who suffer from illnesses and injuries related to the mistreatment of such substances in the workplace.

What is a Dangerous Substance?
When thinking of harmful substances in the workplace, chemicals such as asbestos, benzene, or azo dyes are well known for their cancer-causing effects. The exposure to carcinogens, for example, results in 80,000 deaths every year. Many substances, whether gas, liquid, or solid, can have harmful consequences on a person's health.

Far more people are exposed to chemical or biological substances than commonly thought. Hair dye, spray paints, lacquer, or even seemingly harmless products such as flour can cause illnesses if consumed wrongly. Hazards in baking, for example, include longue diseases like asthma and even combustion and explosion. Reactions to other substances might range from skin allergies to irritations or burns to life-changing diseases that include cancer, leukemia, and brain defects.

Not every person in contact with those substances will develop an illness; the likelihood always depends on a series of factors, such as the period of contact, preconditions, and many other variables difficult to determine. But the fact is that being exposed to harmful chemicals will increase the chances of permanently damaging effects.

Many manufacturing jobs require the use of dangerous substances in the process; the textile and leather industry are known for using cancer-causing substances. According to EU-OSHA, 38 percent of European companies report using potentially dangerous substances.

Banning Harmful Chemicals
Naturally, the EU is working on reducing the number of harmful substances used in the workplace. Laws constantly ban chemicals found to cause cancer to protect workers and consumers. The problem, however, is chemicals that aren't flagged as life threatening but might cause illnesses further down the line when exposed to regularly.

Common potentially threatening substances, including ink, grain, and dust, are often overlooked. Biological agents can carry bacteria and fungus that causes skin diseases, dermatitis, and infections. If a substance is not labelled as life-threatening by EU standards, employers may choose to use the substance regardless.

Other industries, such as construction or chemical cleaning, are notorious for their health risks. It becomes the business owner's responsibility to ensure that exposure stays within a healthy and maintainable amount and employees are completely protected from any harmful consequences contact might cause.

How to Deal with Substances Correctly
Every workplace must provide an SDS (Safety Data Sheet) that gives qualified advice on how to handle hazards properly, including storage and disposal. The most important task should be to educate workers on which substances are potentially dangerous and why. The better the employee understands the chemical and what consequences it would have to their health if they didn't stick to the protocol, the more careful they will be. It goes without saying that any such training must be given by a competent and fully qualified person, including a risk assessment by a health and safety consultant.

As the employee, any given information shouldn't be taken lightly but be questioned if unclear or insufficient. Safety equipment, protective clothing, and correct handling of machinery should always be a priority. If an accident happens, the employer will need to pay a fine, but the worker may be paying with his life. Therefore, never trust anyone with your health but yourself.

The Healthy Workplaces Campaign
EU-OSHA has just issued its new campaign, which aims to improve working conditions for those exposed to dangerous substances. It prompts employers, managers, and workers to start working with chemicals more responsibly, trying to decrease the number of victims of substance-related accidents at work. The agency's website gives insight into current challenges and provides help with common issues and access to many useful online tools.

Scheduled to run for two years, the campaign is particularly looking to decrease the use of carcinogens, which are said to cause about 120,000 people to develop cancer annually.

According to the HSE, 12,000 lung disease death each year are caused by past exposures at work. In 2015, 2,542 people in the UK died from mesothelioma, a lung cancer often linked to exposure to asbestos. In the interest of everyone, companies should strive to reduce these numbers and start building up a sustainable, healthy workplace now.

Katharina Busch is a digital marketing consultant for Accuracast, a digital marketing agency in London, UK.

Posted on Jul 16, 2018