This short paper reviews issues that surround materials handling operations and in particular the handling of dangerous substances and how this relates to good health and safety practices in the workplace.
One fifth of employees within the European Union, approximately 32 million people, are exposed to cancer-causing agents at work, the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work has revealed. Around 22% of workers inhale fumes and vapours for at least a quarter of their working time and 16% come into contact with dyes, pesticides and chromium VI (via wet cement).
The figures have been released by the Agency to launch its campaign to raise awareness of dangerous substances, the subject of this year's European Week for Safety and Health at Work.
Professions most at risk from hazardous chemicals, according to the Agency, are mechanics, printers, tanners, hairdressers, builders, farmers, cleaners and health-care workers.
The producers of dangerous substances are supposed to follow the rules on testing, classifying, packaging and labelling contained in EU Directives 1967/548 and 1999/45.
There are also Directives requiring them to submit Safety Data Sheets, although a recent study showed that 20% of the sheets supplied contained errors. However, only new chemicals since 1981 undergo the EU screening system, which means that two thirds of the 30,000 most commonly used chemicals have not been comprehensively tested. This may soon change if Governments adopt the European Commission's recently unveiled chemicals strategy, which paves the way for a more systematic testing of the old chemicals.
The safety rules for employers consist of a general framework Directive (1989/391) and specific Directives for chemical agents (1998/24), carcinogens (1990/394), and biological agents (2000/54). Legislation is however not the only solution as one UK study found that only 12% of the 1.3 million firms using chemicals in Britain complied with the relevant regulations.
The Agency recommends the following as a code of good practice:
- make an inventory of dangerous substances used;
- gather information about them and assess exposure levels;
- eliminate them if possible, ensure adequate protection and communicate the risks.