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Protecting California’s Right-To-Know Regulation from Industry Attacks

Posted on Oct 29, 2013
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GHS pictogramsKeep California’s unique right-to-know protections and update the rules about chemical product hazards to better protect worker and public health!

That was the clear message workers’ advocates delivered in testimony and letters to the Occupational Safety and Health Standards Board on October 17. (Click here to download the meeting agenda.) It is a message steeped in history and struggles for the human right to know about hazards at work.

The chemical industry was just as clear. Obscured in the fine print, and hidden behind code words like “harmonization," were their goals: roll back historic protections, safeguard private profits, and keep workers and downstream employers in the dark about the serious hazards they face.

Worksafe and others told the Board that workers need to know what chemicals are used on their jobs. They and their employers need to know that the information about those chemicals is complete, accurate, and up-to-date. We have had this right to know in California since 1981, ahead of everyone else in the U.S.

The discussion was prompted by Cal/OSHA’s proposal to revise the state’s Hazard Communication regulation (HazComm), required after changes to the federal equivalent. Federal OSHA adopted some of the international Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labelling of Chemicals (GHS) agreement in 2012.

The new rules set standard formats for labels and what will be called safety data sheets (SDSs instead of MSDSs), pictograms to convey information, and processes for deciding how to “classify” chemicals as a health hazard. Manufacturers and suppliers must name classified chemicals and provide information about the hazards on SDSs and labels. California’s proposal can incorporate the federal updates while preserving our state’s stronger provisions.

The enormously influential and deep-pocketed chemical industry opposes California keeping its current protections. It is consistent with their other efforts in the state and elsewhere to keep hazard information from chemical users, avoid testing for hazards, and keep on making toxic products as they please. Their representatives complained about having to update labels within three months of getting new hazard information and wanted the federal standard adopted as is.

That would get rid of key lists and a “one study” rule for disclosing health hazards, and allow six months to update labels. These demands would seriously undermine California workers’ right-to-know about chemical hazards at work and put countless people in danger. Worksafe and others believe they will lead to a “wild west” of SDSs that may be nicely formatted but cannot be trusted to have full and accurate information about hazards.

Cal/OSHA is trying to adopt most of the federal changes, while keeping the state’s own requirements. However, the proposal included exceptions that many worker and public health advocates said will undermine those good intentions.

Cal/OSHA must respond to all the comments and prepare a revised proposal. There will likely be a 15-day comment period before the Board votes in the spring of 2014. The Board also needs to hear testimony about the importance of keeping current protections before it votes.

The stakes are too high: we can’t allow corporate profit to trump worker safety and health. Support Worksafe’s efforts to safeguard these essential, hard-won protections. Call or e-mail Dorothy Wigmore at (510) 302-1030 or dwigmore@worksafe.org.

Allies we mobilized to support strong right-to-know rules

A wide array of international, national and state organizations and individuals added their voices to the call for better public and worker health protections, including:
  • The AFL-CIO, California Labor Federation, the European Trade Union Confederation, and nine other national and California-based unions
  • The American Sustainable Business Council, and 11 other organizations representing healthcare providers, farm workers, and more
  • Tony Robbins, former head of NIOSH
  • Eula Bingham, former head of OSHA who developed the first federal right-to-know proposal in 1981


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