Green Chemistry
A How-to Guide for OHS Professionals
Chemistry and its products are the building blocks of our modern world. With innovations spanning a wide range of fields, including plastics, medicines, electronics, coatings, synthetic fabrics, aerospace materials, just to name a few—chemistry has enabled tremendous gains for society and for public health. Yet, as occupational safety and health professionals, we know only too well the darker side of the story: the harmful effects of chemicals on human health and the environment. In the United States, OSHA estimates that 190,000 illnesses and 50,000 deaths occur annually from workplace chemical exposures; similarly, EU-OSHA estimates deaths in the European Union at 70,000 a year. Beneath these staggering numbers lies a heavy burden of worker pain and suffering, financial losses to families, and other costs and negative impacts to society as a whole. THE HIERARCHY OF CONTROLS Industrial hygienists, safety engineers, and allied professionals play a key role in identifying and controlling workplace exposures in the modern workplace. Our work is guided by the principles laid out in the hierarchy of controls (Figure 1), and supported by the many responsible companies that commit to ensuring worker safety. Certainly we have come a long way in our ability to manage hazardous chemicals safely. But the statistics remain troubling. Why, in spite of all the time, money, and effort, do we continue to struggle with this issue? Simply put, elimination and substitution continue to be underutilized when compared to the other control methods. And occupational safety and health professionals continue to spend the majority of their work time on activities in less-effective regions of the hierarchy. A European Commission report in 2012 expressed frustration over this development: Substitution ... is either not even identified as a potential measure to consider, or it is seen as far too complex a process.… Should substitution perhaps be described as a theoretically applauded and promoted way of reducing chemical risk, which is more seldom put into practice? No matter how carefully we design and run our programs, things inevitably go wrong: ventilation systems lose power, fan belts blow, respirators slip, gloves tear, filters overload, training classes get missed. The hierarchy of controls is called a hierarchy for a reason, and out in the real world, elimination of chemical hazards is the hands-down best way to keep workers safe. WINDS OF CHANGE IN THE WORLD OF CHEMICALS Against this backdrop, a revolution has been brewing in the worldwide business of chemicals, with many factors acting collectively to drive change. Perhaps most obvious is the ever-growing number of regional, national, and state regulatory bans and restrictions. These include EU-REACH, RoHS, WEEE, GHS, the U.S. Conflict Minerals Rule, K-REACH (South Korea’s version), upcoming actions in Japan, Taiwan, China, Canada, and a host of U.S. state regulations.
Add to this the growing strength of the safer consumer products movement. Fed up with toxics showing up in personal care and children’s products, consumer groups are successfully using the Internet and social media to demand removal of specific chemicals from products. This, in turn, has driven shifts in the retail sector: the phrase “retail regulations” was coined to describe how major retailers such as Walmart, Target, Staples, Whole Foods, and others have enacted corporate chemical policies and bans on downstream suppliers. And finally, the explosive growth of the corporate sustainability movement continues to fuel all of the above. Today, 95 percent of the world’s 250 largest companies release a sustainability report. Unthinkable even in the recent past, companies now publicly report on sensitive environmental and social issues such as carbon emissions, water use, labor conditions, and employee health and safety.