THE production and use of chemicals in workplaces around the world present one of the most significant challenges in workplace protection programmes.
Chemicals are essential to life and their benefits are widespread and well-recognised. From pesticides that improve the extent and quality of food production to pharmaceuticals that cure illnesses, and cleaning products that help establish hygienic living conditions, chemicals are key to healthy living and modern convenience.
However, controlling exposure to these chemicals in the workplace, as well as limiting emissions to the environment, are tasks that governments, employers and workers continue to struggle to address.
The World Day for Safety and Health at Work this year was marked on April 28 globally with the theme, 'Safety and health in the use of chemicals at work.'
According to the International Labour Organisation (ILO) Convention on Safety in the Use of Chemicals at Work, 1990, the term 'chemical' refers to chemical elements and compounds and their mixtures, whether natural or synthetic such as those obtained through production processes.
The ILO says that hazardous chemicals are classified according to the type and degree of their intrinsic health and physical hazards. The hazardous properties of mixtures composed of two or more chemicals are determined by assessments based on the intrinsic hazards of their component chemicals.
The 2014 celebration of the World Day for Safety and Health at Work report cited that there is no reliable way to determine exactly how many chemicals are used and how many workers are exposed to them around the world.
Chemicals are readily associated with industrial facilities such as petrochemical refineries, construction sites or automobile manufacturing. However, the toll of occupational diseases due to chemical exposure is extensive.
Although the burden of disease from chemicals remains unknown, as not all of them can yet be assessed at the global level, the World Health Organisation (WHO) circulated a note on the global burden of diseases attributable to chemicals in September of 2012 at the International Conference on Chemicals Management.
Findings from a study show that in 2004, for which data were available, globally 4.9 million deaths (8.3 per cent of total) and 86 million disability-adjusted life years (DALYs) (5.7 per cent of total) were attributable to environmental exposure and management of selected chemicals.
"These figures include both occupational and non-occupational exposures, such as indoor smoke from solid fuel use, outdoor air pollution and secondhand smoke, with 2.0, 1.2 and 0.6 million deaths annually.
These are followed by occupational particulates, chemicals involved in acute poisonings, and pesticides involved in self-poisonings, with 375,000, 240,000 and 186,000 annual deaths, respectively," the report read in part.
While chemicals are not responsible for all occupational diseases, exposure to chemicals is certainly key to the development of many such diseases. Achieving Decent Work includes preventing the occurrence of occupational diseases due to chemical exposures.
The ILO estimates that 2.34 million people die each year from work-related accidents and diseases. From these fatalities, the majority, or 2.02 million, correspond to occupational and workrelated diseases; the annual global number of cases of non-fatal work-related diseases is estimated to be 160 million.
In addition to causing immeasurable human suffering to victims and their families, such diseases cause major economic losses for enterprises and societies, including reduced productivity and work capacity.
Around 4 per cent of the world gross domestic product (GDP), equivalent to about 2.8 trillion US dollars, is lost due to work-related accidents and diseases in direct and indirect costs.
At the national level, the 2014 celebrations were held in Dar es Salaam where the Vice-President, Dr Gharib Bilal, expressed concern that some small-scale traders have been using chemicals without following regulations properly, which put their lives and the health of consumers in danger.
Dr Bilal called upon members of the public to get necessary information on proper use of chemicals and make sure the chemicals in food are the one required and approved for human consumption to prevent unnecessary effects.
"Chemicals are essential to life and their benefits are widespread and well known. From pesticides that improve the extent and quality of food production to pharmaceuticals that cure illnesses and cleaning products that help establish hygienic living conditions," Dr Bilal noted.
The ILO Coordinator, Dr Annamarie Kiaga, said on behalf of the Country Office Director, Mr Alexio Musindo, said at the occasion that this year's theme reflected on the global challenge for use of chemicals and their impact in workplaces and environment, namely production, handling, storage, transport and disposal of these chemicals.
"We at ILO believe that occupational safety and health is a human right and an integral part of a people-centred agenda for development," Mr Musindo said. He said that this year's theme was a reminder of some of the worst industrial accidents, including the boiler accident during the 1970s at BUKOP, in Kagera region, which killed 14 people and left others seriously injured.
Another accident was the release of some 40 tonnes of poisonous gas (methyl isocyanate) at Bhopal, in India, in December 1984, killing over 3000 people (and many more later) and leaving 500,000 injured.
Continuing effects include birth defects and environmental contamination as well as costs of over 3.5 billion US dollars. The ILO has been responding to the challenge of preventing occupational diseases as part of its mandate and its Decent Work Agenda.
Among other things, ILO has developed an Occupational Health and Safety (OSH) framework conventions, namely Convention No. 155 (1981), No. 161 (1985) and the Promotional Framework for Occupational Safety and Health Convention No. 187 of 2006.
These provide for a national and enterprise level policy, the national system under which these are implemented. Other tools include the Chemicals Convention, 1990 No. 170, the Prevention of Major Industrial Accidents Convention 1993, No. 174 and the Safety and Health in Agriculture, 2001 Convention No. 184, which also contribute to the development of a coherent approach to the sound management of chemicals respecting concerns both for workers, communities and the environment. Tanzania has already ratified some of the OSH-related conventions, namely Nos. 148 (1977) on working environment, 152 (1979) on occupational safety and health (dock work) and 170 (1990) on safe use of chemicals at work.
The ILO has noted that preparation of the OSH policy for the Mainland has been finalised and a strategy for its implementation is at its last stage of development. These effects will not only enhance OSH at enterprise levels but also across different sectors of the economy.