Companies must declare use of dangerous chemicals
Feb 23, 2012
AMWU delegate Les Takacs from Kenworth Trucks in Melbourne.
In nine years as an AMWU delegate Les Takacs has had to ban dangerous chemicals from his shop floor three times.
On each occasion it has given him serious cause to reflect on the consequences of poor chemical management in the workplace.
Late last year, a number of his colleagues complained about side affects from exposure to a dangerous substance, used in his Kenworth Trucks factory to clean windscreen rubber.
Mr Takacs immediately ordered the material to be banned, pending an investigation.
“I asked the responsible site safety engineer whether he read the material safety data sheet. His response was ‘we use worse chemicals in the factory than this.’
“Needless to say I was flabbergasted.”
After extensive meetings between the company’s management, Mr Takacs and the AMWU, Kenworth agreed to no longer use the chemical and to look for an alternative product.
It was a win for the safety of workers at Kenworth. But according to AMWU National Occupation Health and Safety Co-Ordinator Deborah Vallance it should never have come to that.
“There needs to be a change in our mindset, from ‘just wear more safety gear’ to actually reducing the amount of toxic chemicals we use.”
Ms Vallance recently co-authored a peer-reviewed article in The Australian Medical Journal highlighting the lack of regulation in occupation carcinogen exposure.
“Our current system is piecemeal and based on supplying information or reporting emissions. There are no incentives to reduce the usage and production of toxic chemicals. It doesn’t make it easy for employers or workers.”
A successful international model of such legislation is the Massachusetts Toxics Use Reduction Act (TURA) operating in the state of Massachusetts in the USA.
“Under TURA, a list of toxic or hazardous substances has been created and any firm that uses or generates or imports any of these must prepare a toxics use reduction plan.
“They must also report the quantities of toxics they deal with and pay a levy based on the quantity reported.”
An institute was established to provide resources and tools to support the legislation, including education, community outreach and research into less toxic alternatives, and incentives.
Between 1990 and 2009, the program showed that emissions decreased by 56% and use of toxic chemicals decreased by 21% and of some carcinogens by 30%.
“Reducing the toxic load on workers health should be the aim of any legislation. Australia needs to be strategic, not this multiagency fragmented approach which makes it easy for large chemical companies to strongly influence the outcomes for businesses and workers.”
Contact Email: news(at)amwu.asn.au