Why are chemicals important in the workplace?

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-recognized. 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. Chemicals are also a critical part of many industrial processes to develop products that are important to global standards of living. However, controlling exposures 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. What create the dilemma are the risks associated with exposure to these chemicals. The pesticide that helps grow food by producing more and better crops may result in adverse health effects in workers involved in producing the pesticide, in applying it in the fields or exposed to their residues.

Residues of pesticide production and use may also cause adverse ecological effects persistent in the environment for many years after use. The pharmaceutical that saves the life of a patient with a serious health condition may produce adverse health effects in the workers exposed while producing or administering the chemical. The cleaning products that create good hygiene can also adversely affect those who work with the products, and are exposed to them daily. Chemicals pose a broad range of potential adverse effects, from health hazards such as carcinogenicity, and physical hazards like flammability, to environmental hazards such as widespread contamination and toxicity to aquatic life. Many fires, explosions, and other disasters result from inadequate control of their physical hazards. Over the years, chemical safety has been one of the areas in which more work has been carried out in the field of occupational safety and health (OSH).

However, even if significant progress has been made in recent years concerning the regulation and management of chemicals; and governments, employers and workers continue their efforts to minimize the negative effects of the use of hazardous substances both at national and international levels, it is still insufficient. Serious incidents continue to happen and there are still negative impacts on both human health and the environment. Workers who are directly exposed to hazardous substances should have the right to work in a safe and healthy environment, to be properly informed, trained and protected.