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Chemical Awareness

Published: 17th Jun 2014

Guarding against chemical accidents is a complex business, as Liz Anderson explains.

The development of global trade, technology, and communications has resulted in many changes that affect us all. These include:

• Growth in economies, mining and industrial activity

• Higher earning and spending potential for individuals and families

• Greater and more sophisticated demand for consumer, electrical and high tech goods

• Increase in construction of homes and infrastructure

• Increase in chemical related Industries to supply all of the above

• Increase in chemical related hazards and risks, to workers and consumers

‘Developing country’ is a term applied to countries that have not yet reached their full potential when compared with the ‘developed’ countries of the Western world. It relates to infrastructure, education and degree of industrialisation, as well as levels of income, poverty and standards of living.

It can also relate to governance, levels of legislation, its implementation and enforcement in terms of global standards, and acceptability in terms of human rights, dignity and protection.

A ‘developing country in transition’ applies to countries like South Africa, and many in the Middle East that have more highly developed infrastructures and industries, and have thus adopted or adapted global legislation and standards – such as the International Chemical Industry ‘Responsible Care’ – but are still growing to level the playing fields across all citizens.

I mention this because of the challenges posed and the huge strides that I have seen over 40 years in industry, to improve and address many of these challenges so as to protect people, and the environment from the hazards posed by industrial practises, and the mis-use of consumer products.

A proactive approach

Many of the countries in Africa and the Middle East are relatively ‘young’, with large rural and often illiterate or semi-literate populations, which often form the bulk of the workforce in the mines and industry. Sadly in the past the level of training for these people was poor, and the long term health impacts of many types of jobs that involved working with chemicals were not fully understood. As a result, little attention was given to:

• Engineering potential problems and exposures out of the workplace

• Training on safe handling of chemicals, and safe work

• Provision of personal protective clothing and equipment

• Provision and maintenance of fixed safety equipment

• Training to understand the hazards of a particular job or chemical

• The importance of not taking short cuts and the potential consequences of incorrect or non actions

Some of the common practises involved work which shocked me then and would shock health and safety professionals today. These included:

• Manual lifting of heavy loads and off-loading from vehicles

• Workers cutting sleeves off overalls to be cooler in a hot climate

• Decanting and mixing chemicals from drums manually with sticks and no hand or eye/face protection

• Manually charging reactors with sacks of powder chemicals with no masks, respirators or gloves

• Cleaning of empty drums with washings going down the drain

• Fitters working on lines and valves which had not been properly flushed and cleaned

• Fitters working with asbestos lagging with no gloves or face protection

• Chemical burns to hands through non provision of gloves or incorrect gloves which were attacked by the chemicals handled

• Contaminated clothing and PPE being stored in same locker as clothes worn to come to work

• No requirement for workers to shower before changing out of work clothes into home wear – this was particularly problematic where chemicals that could be respiratory sensitisers could impact on families at home

• No requirement or provision of safety shoes in most jobs

• Training was on the job but did not include highlighting the hazards and risks involved in the specific chemical work – only ‘This is what you do’. Sometimes language and comprehension were also barriers

Many of the above were through ignorance of the consequences, especially of the long term effects of chemicals on health. This also impacted on workplace maintenance.

Past lessons

When implementing health and safety measures in the late Seventies and early Eighties, some of the challenges faced included both infrastructure and personnel:

• Damage to safety showers and change room showers

• Disappearing eye wash bottles

• Damage to fire water hoses and disappearing high pressure nozzles

• Refusal to wear hard hats because of the heat – workers said these gave them headaches

A common response when asked to change working habits – from supervisors and workers alike – was “Why should we change? We have always done it this way.”

Does this sound familiar? Chances are, you’re saying yes!

I guess it happens with each generation of new knowledge, improved technologies, and better regulations and enforcement of safety measures in the workplace.

Risk assessment was an unknown in most operations and sadly still is today in some, especially more remote locations.

As we came into the Nineties, global communications highlighted tragedies such as Bhopal, and the less dramatic but lasting health effects of chemicals and asbestos on large numbers of people also hit the headlines.

This, and international events such as the Rio Conference on Sustainable Development demonstrated the need to address the protection of people and the environment. A number of millennium goals were set for governments to report back on, in ten years time, at the Johannesburg Rio + 10 Conference.

One outcome was for better protection of people from chemicals – both workers and consumers. This is where the idea for the GHS, or Globally Harmonised System of classification and labelling was born.

Global regulations for safe packaging, storage and transport started in the 1950s, with warning diamonds to help inform people of the hazard and risks. These applied to sea, air and land transport in developed countries.

Gradually these started to be adopted in developing countries. This helped introduce more meaningful training programmes into factory operations as well by using symbols to communicate hazard and risk – especially to illiterate and semi-literate workers – as to why they should take precautions.

Occupational health programmes also started to be introduced into industry with regular healthcare checks on workers to reinforce why they should take prompt actions should they experience chemical spills, inhalation or splashes to the eyes.

I remember one serious accident where a sight-glass ruptured and although there was a safety screen as a secondary precaution, caustic splashed into both the operator’s eyes. Prompt action by a fellow worker to put him under the safety shower and continuing to irrigate his eyes with water while medical help was sought, saved his sight in one eye, and partially in the other, although he had to undergo treatment for severe burns to his face.

Applying the knowledge

Extreme though this may have been, it served as a very important lesson learned to all other workers, and we never had any further problems with workers wearing eye and face protection – or with disappearing eye wash bottles or damaged safety showers.

It is essential that lessons learned from incidents and accidents are used as examples to other workers of:

• Why they should obey safety rules

• Why they should wear protective clothing and equipment

• Why they should ensure it is always clean and in good condition

• Why they should not take contaminated clothing home – especially if any family member is susceptible to asthma

• Potential consequences of not following safety rules


Important regulations and management tools for industries working with chemicals include the ILO, National Regulations, OHSAS 18001, Industry Best Practice and Tools for Self Regulation – implementation and compliance protect people in the Work Place, Communities and the Public.

The ILO (International Labour Organization) provides the global umbrella from where most countries’ Departments of Labour base their workplace Occupational Health and Safety Regulations.

Where the GHS is concerned, this was devised by the ILO together with the WHO (World Health Organization), the UN Committee of Experts for Transport of dangerous goods and a number of countries' representatives, who formed a work group that developed the first publication of the UN GHS, or ‘Purple Book’ as it is now known, in 2003.

OHSAS 18001

Here, industry together with the British Standards Institute proposed an international standard to improve Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) management, based on the tried and tested framework of ISO 9001 Quality Management System and ISO 14001 Environmental Management System.

This was not adopted at the time by ISO but was adopted by many as a consortium document, with input from many certification bodies and national standards bodies, published in 1999. Initially intended as a guideline, it was so successful for industry to improve its OHS management in a systematic way that it was rapidly used for certification purposes around the world.

Happily it is now being adopted by ISO and being developed along the same framework as the Quality and Environmental Management systems which are currently under revision. It is hoped that this will be published as ISO 45001 later in 2015 or early 2016.

Risk assessment

Today this is an essential tool for Occupational Health and Safety management in chemical operations, as well as the supply chain and transport. Risk assessment is so important to most industry sectors that there are now international ISO standards, such as the ISO 31000 series for risk assessment, to help industry with the most appropriate solutions for their sector and type of work.

Responsible Care

This is the International Chemical Industry programme for self regulation through implementation of management practise standards for best practise in:

• Chemical plant operations and process safety

• Protecting health and safety of people

• Prevention of pollution and control of emissions

• Transport safety and product stewardship

• Community awareness – talking to and neighbours and listening to community concerns

• Public reporting on environmental and sustainability issues

Essential tools

What follows are some of the standards and best practise tools and programmes designed to improve chemicals management, and protect workers and surrounding communities from potential effects and impacts of the chemical industry.

The GHS is a new system of classification to inform Safety Data Sheets, confirm compliant packaging and standardise labelling requirements, to better communicate hazards to protect people in the workplace, and consumers.

Workers are protected though better information in their Safety Data Sheets and product labels to aid training and encourage correct use.

Consumers will now be provided with a single system of pictograms, which will replace all previously existing ones, to communicate chemical hazards of consumer products in a consistent way. This is essential in countries in Africa and the Middle East where literacy levels are low – large quantities of text on labels are therefore inappropriate.

The intention of the GHS is to reduce confusion of different symbols currently used around the world by providing consistent information for consumers to make informed choices in their purchases, whether that be of personal products, cleaning materials, pool chemicals, insecticides or pesticides, fertilisers, paints, solvents or any chemicals purchased for home use. It also encourages safe use.


Training and awareness raising programmes, and tools such as posters are essential to ensure understanding as the new GHS pictograms are introduced around the world. They are all for simplicity – a red diamond indicating ‘beware’, with a white background and a black symbol. Examples are shown below, left.

Chemical protection today

The chemical and petrochemical industries have grown enormously across the Middle East and Africa over the last 40 years. This has been in response to growing economies, local and global demand.

Happily, the knowledge, tools and standards for best practise have also grown, although sometimes at the great price of learning from disasters. This improvement of controls is actively built into all new plants today, and petrochemical giants have very high safety standards which limit worker exposure.

Chemicals management and regulation have come a long way – old practises and ignorance are fast becoming a thing of the past, and are seen as totally unacceptable in today’s world.

Risk assessment to challenge all possible scenarios prior to commencing any new operations is now the norm, to ensurethat all necessary precautions have been identified. Life Cycle Assessment is also essential for new products and Environmental Impact Assessments for new manufacturing operations, to see if they are and will be acceptable in the foreseeable future. These all have a positive impact on Occupational Health and Safety and the protection of workers.

Training is key to ensuring that operators in the industry understand why they must do things in a certain way, and the potential consequences of not doing them – especially where impacts could be on surrounding communities or the public.

Industry Progress

In short, the industry has come a long way to overcome the challenges, and bad practises of the past. Producer responsibility and product stewardship should be used to educate suppliers, service providers and customers to the same high standards.

New technologies and knowledge have provided tools and opportunities to continually improve best practise, compliance and meet new challenges as they come along.

Today’s opportunities include incorporating and understanding the following elements:

• Thorough risk assessment and engineering out potential risks before they can occur, excellent maintenance programmes and audit should be the norm

• Replacing potential hazards with more acceptable and less hazardous practises both on and off site

• Producer responsibility and product stewardship should be applied to transport and service providers to reduce accidents and protect the public

• Prevention is far cheaper than responding to spills, in money and human terms

• Wearing of PPE such as safety shoes, hard hats and eye protection should be second nature, not the solution – these should be the very last line of defence should an emergency occur

• Training, training and more training – plus testing comprehension of employees at all levels. Never assume they have remembered their training

Protection of people and the environment are essential to our future – both are precious and cannot be replaced.

Published: 17th Jun 2014 in Health and Safety Middle East

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