Hazardous chemicals and materials in the workplace. Speech by Richard Marles, ACTU Assistant Secretary. Hazmat 2005 Conference, The Menzies, Sydney. 13 May 2005.
“In the entirety of World War 1 60,000 Australians died
Two weeks ago last Monday with considerable but appropriate passion we
commemorated the Ninetieth anniversary of the Gallipoli landings. In doing so we
took a public holiday and in our hundreds of thousands across cities and towns
around Australia we marched.
30,000 Australians travelled half way across the world so that they could
weep at the graves of those who died at the Dardanelles, even though the lives
of those who wept and those who died were separated in time by more than half a
Les Carlyon, who wrote a wonderful history of the Gallipoli campaign,
described Gallipoli as Australia’s Homeric tale. And truly it is.
You can see the signs of this everywhere. From the Lone Pine Streets in the
suburbs around Australia, to the spirit of ANZAC which is invoked at almost
every opportunity, and even the film Gallipoli is an icon in our country’s
Why Gallipoli is so culturally significant is hard to say, but part of the
answer must be that it is the embodiment of Australia’s participation in
the First World War. And there can be no doubting as to why the First World War
is so significant in our country’s history.
In terms of our young men who died Australia made proportionally a greater
sacrifice than any of the allies who fought in that conflict. We made a greater
sacrifice than Brittain has ever made in her entire history.
And that such a broad scythe should have cut through our youth at a time when
our young country was in its second decade of existence means that it is little
wonder that this event should have seared itself onto the nation’s
consciousness. You cannot go into a town of more than 2 or 300 people in
Australia without finding there a monument to those who died in the First World
For the record in the 8-month campaign at Gallipoli, 8,000 Australians died.
In the entirety of World War 1 60,000 Australians died and a further 156,000
“… another 60,000 Australians will die as a result of work related
exposure to asbestos …”
You might think that’s an odd way to start a speech about hazardous
chemicals and materials in the workplace.
Well it is estimated that another 60,000 Australians will die as a result of
work related exposure to asbestos. And as staggering as this figure is it does
not tell the whole story. The Australasian Faculty of Occupational Medicine in
its Occupational Cancer Manual estimates that as many as 26% of all lung
cancers are work related. It further estimates that 28% of leukaemia’s and
30% of lip cancers are caused by work. And the vast bulk of these are caused
because of exposure to hazardous materials and chemicals in the workplace.
When I first heard these figures the only comparison I could think of was the
loss of life that Australia suffered in the First World War. But while the
figures themselves maybe comparable the place that hazardous materials and
chemicals in the workplace holds within our national psyche is far from
There are no monuments to those who have died as a result of work related
exposure to asbestos. There is no movie directed by Peter Weir and starring Mel
Gibson highlighting the plight of people who have been exposed to dangerous
chemicals in the workplace. There are no marches for these dead. There is no
minute’s silence. Given the staggering number of people who die as a
result of exposure to hazardous materials and chemicals in the workplace this is
a tragedy which goes almost entirely unnoticed by our society.
And at the outset this observation should stand as a beacon for all our
considerations about how we can improve public policy around chemicals in the
“Chemicals are everywhere”
Chemicals are everywhere. They are at the centre of our 21st
century lives. They are at the centre of our 21st century economy.
Chemicals can be found in every single industrial process. They are in our food,
our cosmetics, our gardening products, our textiles, our paints and varnishes,
our computers, our TV’s, our building materials and even our
children’s toys. The list goes on and on and on.
And in a sense this is the rub. As a society we have utterly embraced
chemicals and we are now entirely dependant upon them and they do an enormous
amount of good in our lives. And yet at the same time they are unambiguously
killing people in the workplace.
The sheer quantity of chemicals in the workplace is staggering. The
Australian Inventory of Chemical Substances (AICS) has on it 38,000 different
chemicals. Each of these are pure chemicals. When you consider the products
which involve mixtures of these pure chemicals the number of materials within
the workplace runs into the hundreds of thousands. Indeed in the US it is
estimated that there are 650,000 chemical products within their workplaces.
“… a massive credibility gap …”
The sheer number of chemicals being used every day at work and the potential
dangers that they give rise to is a problem of such huge magnitude that it tends
to alienate working people. It is a problem which is at the same time
frightening for working people and confusing in terms of what we are to do about
This was borne out in a survey conducted by the ACTU in the year 2000 of
health and safety reps. These people are experts within the workplace. If anyone
is going to know about what to do with chemicals in the workplace it is health
and safety reps.
Firstly, 88% of those surveyed indicated that chemicals were used within
their workplace. There’s no surprise there.
Disturbingly, a third said that they had witnessed within their workplace
employees who had suffered the adverse effects of having being exposed to
chemicals within that workplace.
Only 25% indicated that they had received any training about how to deal with
chemicals in the workplace.
Near a quarter said that the chemicals that were being used within their
workplace were not clearly labelled. And only a quarter had been told about the
safe exposure levels relating to the particular chemicals that they were
handling. 50% believed that they had not been given adequate information about
the chemicals within their workplace. And consequently 70% indicated that they
would like more information about the chemicals that were in use in their
Only 19% thought that enough was being done about chemical safety within
Whatever the facts are about the adequacy of labelling, the appropriateness
of training and the completeness of information that is provided about chemicals
what this survey describes is a massive credibility gap in the confidence
workers have in the system. Fundamentally working people do not believe that the
system which is in place to regulate chemicals in the workplace adequately
That this is the attitude of working people ought to ring a massive alarm
bell for people within this room. And in the view of the ACTU working people
have some cause to doubt the appropriateness of regulation governing chemicals
in the workplace.
“… a communication and information net”
Senator Michael Enzi who is the chair of the US Senate’s Sub-Committee
on Employment, Safety and Training has said that communication is the key to
protecting the safety and health of US workers in relation to chemicals in the
This philosophy essentially underpins the regime which exists in Australia.
We try to deal with chemicals in the workplace by establishing a communication
and information net. This net is reliant upon proper labelling and employers
providing appropriate material safety data sheets.
While there is regulation in the sense that certain chemicals are required to
be labelled and have material safety data sheets written in relation to them
there is little pro-active enforcement of that regulation. We are reliant on
people making complaints about a lack of labelling. (And in an environment where
the latent effects of exposure to a chemical may not show up for decades having
a complaint based system is insane.) But more to the point we are reliant upon
companies doing the right thing in their own assessment of the chemicals they
use and the appropriate labelling and information they provide about those
“… is it enough that beyond the provision of that information our
system is essentially passive”
All this begs two questions. First, are there holes in this information and
communication net and second is it enough that beyond the provision of that
information our system is essentially passive.
The National Industrial Chemicals Notification and Assessment Scheme (NICNAS)
maintains the AICS. The vast bulk of substances on this list were in use at the
time that the AICS was established around 1990 and as such have never been
assessed by NICNAS as to whether or not they are hazardous. That said, NICNAS
does play an effective role as a gatekeeper in relation to new chemicals (either
imported or manufactured) which are used in Australia. All these new chemicals
NOHSC maintains the Hazardous Substances Information System (HSIS) which is
affectionately referred to as ‘the List’. The List is based on a
European list of hazardous substances. There are about three and a half thousand
chemicals which are on the List.
When you do the maths, it’s clear that most of the substances on the
HSIS will be on the AICS and will not have been assessed. So in that sense the
HSIS provides a broader information net than the assessed chemicals on the
However, in Europe it’s estimated that 70% of new chemicals have some
hazardous component to them. Now if we assume that a similar percentage of the
existing chemicals which were in use in Australian industry in 1990 also have a
hazardous component to them then there should be something in the vicinity of
25-26,000 hazardous chemicals being used in the workplace. However, the extent
of the HSIS is 3,500 chemicals. In that difference you have a massive hole in
the communication and information net. It means that for most chemicals
labelling requirements are left in the hands of the manufacturer. At law as a
society we are relying solely on the general duties which exist on employers in
relation to their workforce and in relation to the public to guarantee the safe
use of chemicals in the workplace.
It may be that large corporations have the resources to research the
chemicals that they are using and are able to meet the obligations of these
duties. However, amongst smaller companies which make up the majority of the
Australian economy where there are no such resources to investigate the
chemicals that they use there are real questions about whether or not the
general duties that they owe are being met in the absence of any specific
regulation about what they need to be doing about these chemicals.
All of this describes a situation where the levels of ignorance are high and
where the levels of regulation are low. There are specific labelling
requirements in relation to about 3,500 chemicals in Australia and beyond that
it’s up to the manufacturer. And sitting over all of that is a general
duty which may or may not be met by particular employers.
In preparation for this speech I decided to try and test the information and
communication net which exists in Australia and in doing so I spent no more than
an hour on the internet.
I discovered a chemical called 2,4-Dichlorophenol (DCP). DCP is used in the
manufacture of herbicides and the manufacture of wood preservatives. It is a
common chemical which is used internationally and a common chemical used in
The US Centre for Disease Control has on its website a three page summary
about DCP and its effects. In this summary it reports five case studies of
people who have been fatally exposed to DCP. And I want to quote to you a couple
of those case studies. The first case study:
On October 12, 1998, a 29-year-old man employed at a Michigan chemical
company producing 2,4-D was sprayed with 2,4-DCP from a leak in tubing while he
was using steam to clear a blocked pump. The worker bypassed the nearest safety
shower and used a locker room shower, where he became unconscious. Resuscitation
attempts were unsuccessful, and the worker was pronounced dead at a hospital 1
hour after exposure. Skin surfaces exposed to 2,4-DCP included his forearms,
right knee, right thigh, and face.
The second case study:
In April 1992, a 64-year-old man at a chemical facility in England was using
steam to unblock a clogged pump carrying 2,4-DCP. A pump seal failure allowed
steam and 2,4-DCP to spurt onto his face and neck. Death occurred 20 minutes
While in all five cases there were some chemical burns and steam burns it was
clear that these were not the main reasons for death but rather the exposure to
DCP itself. The report by the US Centre for Disease Control finished by saying:
Any skin contact with liquid 2,4-DCP should be considered a life-threatening
medical emergency. Safety showers should be located in the immediate vicinity of
work areas having potential for 2,4-DCP exposure. These showers should be
alarmed so that assistance is summoned promptly.
Now DCP is on the HSIS. It is regarded as a chemical which carries with it
the second highest level of toxicity. That is, it is regarded as a toxic
chemical but not a very toxic chemical.
But significantly there is no exposure standard in Australia to DCP. So we
have a situation where the US Centre for Disease Control describes contact with
this chemical in a liquid form as being a “life-threatening medical
emergency” and yet there is no exposure standard in Australian in
relation to this chemical.
And this is typical because for the vast majority of those chemicals on the
HSIS there is no exposure standard. The only regulation we have in relation to
DCP is to provide information about it and once we have provided that
information it’s up to the employers themselves as to how they handle that
chemical in the workplace. This is a highly passive situation and surely a
situation which is not good enough in terms of protecting the safety of
Australian workers. I should say that we are not alone for there is no exposure
standard in the US as well. It highlights however how ineffective a passive
In a sense I think the situation is more scary when you consider mixtures. It
is estimated that in Europe 90-95% of chemicals appear in the form of mixtures
and I imagine the same would be true here.
Most of these mixtures are benign in the sense that there is no synergistic
effect which occurs when two chemicals are placed with each other in a mixture.
However, in many cases there is a synergistic effect. And when it comes to the
synergistic effect of chemicals within mixtures the field is essentially vacant.
There are no obligations to assess these effects. There are no labelling
requirements in relation to these effects. There is no obligation to trial or
engage in any tests associated with these mixtures. There is at the end of the
day absolutely nothing.
When it comes to the synergistic effect of mixing chemicals the precautionary
principal has no application at all. The only way we know that there is a
problem is if it has occurred. We only know there is a problem when a worker has
been exposed to these chemicals and has been injured or is dead. Rather than
trying to prevent this we simply act in a remedial way.
So are there holes in the information and communication net in Australia?
Most definitely. And is it enough that having provided the information we as a
community simply take a passive role about how chemicals are handled in the
workplace? Definitely not.
“… we are not blind to the difficulties …”
In the union movement we are not blind to the difficulties associated with
taking a more proactive attitude toward chemicals in the workplace. There are
many significant difficulties associated with doing this.
For starters the length of science associated with assessing whether or not a
chemical has an adverse effect when workers are exposed to it is extremely
Workers in dye factories who were exposed to aniline dye were found in one
study to have a rate of bladder cancer 83 times that of the national average.
However it took 50 years to diagnose and deal with that problem. And there is
still conjecture about whether aniline dye is a cause of bladder cancer.
So when it’s taking 50 years to assess whether or not a particular
chemical is harmful how do we apply the precautionary principle in that
And while time is elapsing we continue to produce vast quantities of
chemicals in the workplace. Technological advancement means these chemicals are
being used in new and different ways and indeed new chemicals are being used.
And market pressures are requiring new products to be put up for sale as soon as
In the midst of all of this it is difficult to see how the precautionary
principle gets any oxygen at all, how it gets any air time. It seems that the
regulators around chemicals in the workplace are simply struggling to keep up
with the momentum of the beast.
“… there is an essential contradiction in the way in which we take
precautions about the ingestion of chemicals as compared to the way in which we
lack precautions involving exposure to chemicals …”
But I think there is one area which provides an interesting contrast and some
hopeful lessons. And that is drugs.
In terms of the manufacture of medicinal drugs the precautionary principle is
very significantly in play. Having developed a new drug it needs to be
extensively assessed, there needs to be trials and more trials followed by human
trials and more trials again. No one wants to have another thalidomide episode.
Accordingly, it can be years before a new drug is able to be sold.
It is interesting that we should have such a different attitude as a society
towards the ingesting of chemicals in the form of drugs than we do in relation
to exposing workers to chemicals in the workplace. Ingestion is only one of four
ways in which chemicals can enter the body. In addition to ingesting chemicals,
we can inhale chemicals, we can absorb them through our skin and eyes, and
chemicals can enter a foetus through placental transfer. So why we have a
different societal standard when it comes to ingesting drugs is a mystery.
For me there are two lessons here. First of all there is an essential
contradiction in the way in which we take precautions about the ingestion of
chemicals as compared to the way in which we lack precautions involving exposure
to chemicals in other ways.
But there is also a hopeful lesson to be learned. The drug industry is a huge
industry. There are thousands upon thousands of products out there in the market
place. All the same market pressures which exist in relation to other uses of
chemicals exist here. And yet despite all these problems the precautionary
principle is allowed to play a role. And this says to me that if the
precautionary principle can play a role in the use of medicinal drugs within our
society then the precautionary principle can play more of a role in the way in
which workers are exposed to chemicals within the workplace.
We acknowledge that this is a very difficult problem and in many respects it
is a global problem. However, the precautionary principle simply has to be given
a better run in the way chemicals enter our industry and the way workers are
exposed to them. We need to look at the work which is being done in Europe on
this issue about trying to spread regulation and increase the information that
is available about chemicals in the workplace. In this regard I commend to you
the work of the European Environmental Bureau and the European Consumers
“… what we need is one single government agency …”
But having acknowledged the difficulties associated with making change, what
change can we do now which will make a difference.
Well if we are reliant on Senator Enzi’s assessment that communication
is the cornerstone of our system in relation to chemicals in the workplace then
at least we have to make this work properly.
At the moment there is a multitude of governmental bureaus and government
regimes about chemicals in the workplace.
NOHSC has responsibility for workplace chemicals, dangerous goods transport,
agriculture and veterinary chemicals, and the schedule of drugs and poisons. It
doesn’t have responsibility for all these exclusively. For example the
National Transport Commission also has responsibility for dangerous goods
NICNAS is the gatekeeper for new chemicals within our workplace and their
NOHSC has responsibility for the HSIS while NICNAS has responsibility for the
AICS. NOHSC is located in the Department of Workplace Relations while NICNAS is
located in the Department of Health and Aging.
In addition to this the AFER looks after explosives, the APVMA looks after
pesticides, the NDPSC looks after poisons and there is a totally different
regime for radioactive substances.
At the best of times coordinating government agencies is like herding cats.
And so how we expect to get a clear and systematic method of communication and
information from all these different government agencies and bureaus has got me
completely beaten. However, there is hope on the horizon.
The Globally Harmonised System of classification and labelling chemicals
(GHS) is an international system which covers all hazardous chemicals and dilute
solutions and importantly mixtures. It is a uniform and comprehensive system of
classifying chemical substances.
Yesterday Wayne Creaser from NOHSC described Australia’s commitment and
ambition to introduce the GHS by the international deadline of 2008. This is a
fantastic step forward. But on its own it is not enough.
We must see the introduction of GHS into Australia as an opportunity to drive
the unification of all government agencies which deal with chemicals in the
workplace. For at the end of the day what we need is one single government
agency with one centre for research, and one centre for decision-making about
Only then can we hope to have a more innovative approach to introducing the
precautionary principle around chemicals in the workplace and thereby save
thousands of Australian workers lives.