Companies are increasingly coming under pressure on account of globalisation to safeguard the health and safety of employees and users of chemicals and hazardous materials, as well as the environment. Historically, chemical regulation in the Middle East has been a national patchwork of regulations, with the level of sophistication of chemical control varying greatly as a result of different levels of economic and industrial development.

While several of the countries in the Middle East are possessive of an intent, if not a formal action plan, to develop elaborate systems of regulation, they are normally less advanced in this regard than their American, Asian-Pacific, and European counterparts; this is because they focus more on a system of permits and licenses to manage chemicals. As a result, reduced attention was given to training on the safe handling of chemicals, provision of personal protective clothing and equipment, and training to understand the hazards of a particular job or chemical.

There are, however, a wide variety of Ministry, legislative, and other decrees which oversee chemical protection, Occupational Safety and Health, safety data sheets, and product labels. This article will proceed to review these chemical regulatory agencies and regulations governing and ensuring the protection of workers in the Middle East region.

“the regulations of the GHS would safeguard the workers’ wellbeing by reducing the risk of incidents involving hazardous chemicals”

Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)

The overarching goal of the GCC has been to foster internal cooperation through unified regulations in 11 distinct sectors, including that of the environment and hazardous chemicals. On 6 February 2020, the Gulf Petrochemicals and Chemicals Association (GPCA) called for a regionwide adoption and implementation of a new chemicals management framework in the Arabian Gulf at a governmentindustry roundtable, titled ‘Government and Chemical Industry Collaboration: Harmonized Chemical Management in the GCC.’ This roundtable sought to pave the way for the implementation of the GHS (Global Harmonized System). The regulations of the GHS would allow for the creation of a robust chemical management framework, which would safeguard the workers’ wellbeing by reducing the risk of incidents involving hazardous chemicals, and help to increase the trust placed in the industrial community.

Eighty delegates attended the roundtable; the attendees included representatives from the UAE Ministry of Climate Change and Environment, the Supreme Petroleum Council, Emirates Authority for Standardization & Metrology (ESMA), and Etihad Rail, as well as the Public Authority for Industry of Kuwait and the Royal Commission for Jubail and Yanbu in Saudi Arabia.

Key Chemical Regulatory Agencies in the GCC

In recent years, the GCC has seen unprecedented industrial growth. With the goal of fortifying the environment during this period of industrial maturation, the GCC published the “General Regulations of the Environment in the GCC states” (Regulation) in 1997, recognising that, “the great developmental growth, the last few years in the GCC states, has created some negative results, which are considered a clear threat to the environment in the area and calls for positive attention and consideration.”

While these regulations’ titles seem to specifically highlight the environment, it certainly has implications for the management of chemical substances in the GCC. The General Regulations provided a framework for establishing wider-reaching rules pertaining to chemical management. One such offshoot of this was the “Common System for the Management of Hazardous Chemicals” in 2002, which established minimum legislation for the member states in dealing with hazardous chemicals.

“risk reduction of serious chemical-related incidents, and the promotion of the safe handling of chemicals based on solid scientific principles”

Article 3 puts forth what the Common System calls the “Basic Obligations” of those to whom the system is applicable. The primary point of the article specifies that, unless authorised and monitored by the competent regulatory authority, no practices or procedures involving dealings with hazardous chemicals or relevant equipment shall be applied or conducted. Secondly, the article delineates that, unless authorised by the competent regulatory authority, no hazardous chemical shall be manufactured, produced, circulated, used, or transported. Finally, it states that, unless authorised by the competent regulatory authority, no site for any work involving hazardous chemicals or equipment involving hazardous chemical shall be allocated, nor shall any buildings or facilities be set up to that end.

The GCC’s Global Harmonised System

In 2006, the Gulf Petrochemicals and Chemicals Association was formed by leading chemical manufacturers from across the GCC member countries. Since its inception, it has expanded to have 35 full members, companies with manufacturing facilities in the region, and 215 associate members. The GPCA has notably even been recognised as the “Regional Voice of the Chemical Industry.”

One of the cardinal elements underlying GPCA’s success has been the adoption of the Global Chemical Industry’s Responsible Care Programme, which strives to drive continuous improvement in the environment, health, safety, and security (EHSS) standards. Chemical management is a key domain of concern for the United Nations (UN). With the intent of addressing the same, the UN has established the United Nations Globally Harmonised System (GHS). This system is aimed at harmonising hazard communication associated with chemicals supply chain, from production to disposal, and strives to reduce the overall risk associated with the management of hazardous chemicals and substances.

In the GCC member countries, the Global Harmonised System is already being implemented by a set of companies, but in a rather haphazard fashion, with different versions of the GHS being used. In order to alleviate the inconsistency stemming from the same, the GPCA has proposed the adoption of the GPCA Code of Practice that would implement a consistent legislative framework for UN GHS in the GCC countries. The GPCA strongly advocates for the proper adoption of GHS in the region as it is expected to greatly improve the safety of employees, and ensure the safe handling of chemicals.

As a preliminary step, the GCPA proposes the formation of a regional GHS Coordinating Committee, comprising of the government, industry, and public stakeholders; it also strongly recommends that this Committee has a clearly defined mandate with the key consideration of risk reduction of serious chemical-related incidents, and the promotion of the safe handling of chemicals based on solid scientific principles.

Bahrain

Sixty percent of the Kingdom of Bahrain’s export receipts and 70 percent of its government revenues are products of the country’s intensive petroleum production and refining efforts. Bahrain’s net energy consumption is primarily that of natural gas, and secondarily that of oil. Last but certainly not least, Bahrain’s two major industries: refining and aluminum smelting are dependent on hydrocarbons. Needless to say, Bahrain deals in a substantial volume of chemicals and its industries bring its workers in contact with the same. Furthermore, Bahrain also receives various types of chemicals from around the globe, such as pesticides, cleaning materials, pharmaceuticals drugs, and food additives.

Key Chemical Regulatory Agencies

Within Bahrain, multiple Ministries and bodies have agency in the management of chemicals. Chief among these is the Supreme Council, which has the overall mandate for environmental protection in the country; this extends into the domain of chemical substance management very comprehensively. Additionally, the Directorate of Environmental Control (Directorate), in collaboration with the Ministry of Health, Ministry of Labor and other organisations, is tasked with the “drawing up of plans, policies, and mechanisms for the management and protection of the environment and to ensure industry compliance with the environmental standards and regulations for maintaining a safe and healthy environment.”

With the goal of ensuring the protection of workers, the Directorate bears objectives that include 1) the preparation, monitoring, and compliance with environmental legislation by users and industries to safeguard human health; and 2) the control of storage, handling, movement, treatment, and disposal of potential and hazardous substances, wastes, and chemicals.

Furthermore, some of the key mandates of the Directorate with respect to chemical substance management, and the protection of workers, are: the preparation and implementation of rules and regulations for the protection of the environment and the safety of people; the development and implementation of plans and procedures for emergency preparedness against occupational risks; the establishment of criteria and procedures for the management and monitoring of hazardous waste; the control of the importation, storage, handling, transportation, transfer, and disposal of toxic chemical materials; the recommendation of environmental health criteria and procedures to protect workers against occupational hazards and pollution, and the general safeguarding of the public health of citizens; and the preparation of programmes required for the safety training of technical and professional staff.

Another Bahraini governmental entity that bears responsibility for chemical management and the protection of workers is The Standardisation and Metrication Directorate (SMD), under the supervision of the Ministry of Industry and Commerce. Its objectives underline the enhancement of safety, health, and environmental conditions for the Kingdom of Bahrain through the appropriate technical regulations and standards.

Saudi Arabia

The Public Environment Law, enacted by Royal Decree M/34 of 2001, along with the implementing regulation of 2003, sets forth the general structure for the environmental regulations. However, it must be noted that more detailed legislative and regulatory requirements related to the chemical industry exist on the local level. The local laws of the twin industrial cities of Jubail and Yanbu are a good example of immensely comprehensive legislation that is not totally consistent with those on the national level.

Key chemical regulatory agencies

The primary regulations addressing occupational safety issues in Saudi Arabia are the Labor Law and the General Environmental Law; these laws set forth broad national requirements, implementation methods, and enforcement tactics.

Chapter 8 of the Saudi Labor Law details the mechanisms in place to ensure the protection of workers against occupational hazards, major industrial accidents and work injuries.

Article 122 of Section One on the Protection against Occupational Hazards states that an employer is necessitated to take precautions to protect the workers against hazards, occupational diseases, the machinery in use, and that the employer is to ensure work safety and protection.

Article 123 and 124 mandate the employer to inform the worker of the hazards of his job, and to require the worker to use the prescribed protective equipment. Accordingly, the worker must use and preserve the personal protective equipment designated for each process, and carry out the instructions established to safeguard himself from potential injuries and diseases.

Article 131 of Section Two on the Protection against Major Industrial Accidents states that the Minister shall preserve the authority to issue the regulations and decisions embodying the necessary arrangements at firm-level for the protection of workers against major hazards, related duties of the employers, the worker’s rights and duties, and other measures to minimize chemical risks and mitigate their impacts.

Transnational regulations and International standards

Chemical control legislations in the Middle East are not very easy to access, on account of these legislations being spread across many different agencies, ministries and regulatory bodies. Aside from regulations on a national level, regulations on a local level (e.g. Saudi Arabian regulations in the industry cities of Jubail and Yanbu) can exist.

Compliance with these chemical control legislations is often complicated due to the fact there is a dearth of developed infrastructure for chemical management (no harmonized legislations), or complete and up-todate database for chemicals.

However, there do exist some international regulations that are unanimously employed by industries working with chemicals; these include the ILO, OHSAS 18001, Responsible Care, Industry Best Practice, and Tools for Self-Regulation.

Needless to say, the ILO is the source that most countries’ Departments of Labor derive their workplace Occupational Health and Safety Regulations from. Furthermore, the Globally Harmonized System was devised upon collaboration between the ILO and the WHO.

The OHSAS 18001 is an international standard to improve Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) management, and is based on the tried and tested framework of ISO 9001 Quality Management System and ISO 14001 Environmental Management System. Although it was initially meant to be nothing more than a guideline, industries began seeing so much improvement in their systemic OHS management that it was rapidly undertaken for certification purposes around the world.

Chemical protection today

Despite chemical regulation in the Middle East being a work in progress, the knowledge, tools, and standards for best practice have become permanent fixtures in the Middle Eastern industrial setting today. As illustrated by the aforementioned regulations, risk assessment, to challenge all possible scenarios prior to commencing any new operations, has become a staple; the same goes for safety training to ensure that workers and operators in the industry comprehensively understand, and accordingly avert the hazards in their line of work.