You’ve probably seen the pictures: children looking for valuable scraps in junkyards full of electronic waste in Africa, chemical sludge from textile factories turning entire rivers red in Asia, workers toiling in crop fields while low-flying airplanes spray pesticides in Latin America. The horrific examples are many.
The globalisation of supply chains, and the fact that the new manufacturing hubs of the world are now located in low-income countries where worker protection and environmental safety laws are nowhere to be found, means that workers are fighting an uphill battle when it comes to their exposure to hazardous chemicals. And the further down the supply chain you go, the more hard-won it gets.
In an UN report from last year on the protection of workers from exposure to toxic substances, the Human Rights Council referred to workers as “canaries in the coal mine”. In the old days, miners brought caged canaries with them into the tunnels to detect dangerous levels of gas such as carbon monoxide. If the bird died, it meant that the miners should exit the mine immediately.
When it comes to toxic chemicals, the workers themselves are today the canaries. They are typically the ones exposed first, as well as the most, often having to pay the same deadly price as the birds – just not as quickly.
“Exposure to selected chemicals caused 1.6 million deaths in 2016”
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), exposure to selected chemicals caused 1.6 million deaths in 2016 alone. This is, however, an underestimate since it only considers a small number of chemical exposures and people are exposed to many more chemicals every day, which makes quantification and confirmation of diseases caused by chemicals almost impossible.
Besides, the adverse health effects are often completely invisible at first; it’s only after a couple of years, or even decades, that they start to show.
These potential negative effects are, however, not unknown to the businesses. Workers continue to be exposed to well-known toxic substances, including industrial chemicals and pesticides, and are often permitted to be exposed to them at levels that are hundreds, if not thousands, times higher than for non-workers in the same area, according to the UN report.
The problem is that workers are often unaware of the risks, many times even of what chemicals they are exposed to. And even if they would know, there are a slew of obstacles safeguarding the ones who should be held accountable.
The best way to avoid all of this is to prevent workers’ exposure to hazardous chemicals from happening at all. To that end, more and more progressive companies are starting to address this issue in their supply chains with the help of a chemical blacklist.
“Progressive companies work with Manufacturing Restricted Substances Lists (MRSLs)”
The most commonly used blacklists are the so-called Restricted Substances Lists (RSLs), which define what chemicals are not allowed to be found in the finished product. The RSLs are great for ensuring compliance with legislation and caring for the health of the consumers.
However, they only restrict hazardous chemicals in the finished product – not in the manufacturing process. This means that a product can still be produced using a lot of harmful chemicals as long as they are “washed out” of the product before it reaches the consumer.
This, obviously, doesn’t help protect the health of the workers.
Progressive companies have therefore chosen to go one step further and work with Manufacturing Restricted Substances Lists (MRSLs). These lists not only restrict hazardous chemicals in the finished products, but also throughout the entire supply chain and production process. If the MRSLs are comprehensive and rigorous, it would mean that also the workers and the environment are protected from exposure since harmful chemicals wouldn’t be used during any stage of production.
Even if these supply chain blacklists are not the ultimate solution to all the problems facing workers in chemical-intensive sectors, they’re a step in the right direction. If MRSLs are set up in the right way, they would help ensure that people are granted the basic human right of safe and healthy working conditions.
Then workers would no longer have to be canaries in the coal mine. Nor would rivers close to factories have to run red from chemical sludge.