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The Right to Know, not Right to Guess

Posted on Feb 24, 2014
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Right to KnowFor nearly a year now, Worksafe has been at the forefront of advocates weighing in on proposed changes to California workers’ Right to Know about the chemicals they use on the job. As Worksafe Occupational Health Specialist Dorothy Wigmore wrote in a recent letter (PDF) to the Occupational Safety and Health Standards Board (“Standards Board”), “A meaningful [right to know] regulation is a long-standing and a key goal when we advocate for protective worker health and safety laws.”

These state-level changes were prompted by changes on the federal level, after OSHA adopted some of the international Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labelling of Chemicals (or GHS) in 2012. Click here to read our previous post for more information on our fight for the Right to Know.

There are good reasons for the GHS: the same chemicals are used by workers, and encountered downstream by consumers and communities, throughout the world. It only makes sense that everyone should have access to the same, accurate information about hazardous substances. But there are serious issues with the consistency of the information provided to workers throughout the world.

The GHS system provides criteria for classifying chemical hazards based on their health effects. The criteria determine what information goes on data sheets and labels. For example, if a chemical meets the criteria for causing cancer, it is supposed to be classified as a carcinogen and labeled as such. However, the Federal OSHA recently revised Hazard Communication System has a loophole in the classification procedure.

The “weight of evidence” approach allows unscrupulous manufacturers and importers to say they don’t believe a chemical meets the criteria that would require them to classify that chemical according to its harmful health effects.

The result: information about a specific product’s ingredients and their hazards can vary depending on where you live and work, and what the company wants you to know.

In California, our Hazard Communication (“HazCom”) rules include a list of sources to find out whether substances to which employees are exposed at the workplace are hazardous and, therefore, subject to the hazard communication regulation. We want California to keep this list of sources, so that everyone is following the same guidelines and that the Right to Know doesn’t vary by employer or location.

Consider the case of styrene, a chemical considered carcinogenic by the National Toxicology Program (NTP), along with a host of other hazards. The chemical’s data sheets from Chevron Phillips, an international company, differ from country to country, although they were all prepared on the same day by the same department. In China, for instance, the data sheet indicates that styrene belongs to four GHS health hazard categories, while the Japanese sheet list 14, the Korean sheet has 10, and the US sheet has nine health hazard categories listed.

In fact, the US 2011 Chevron styrene data sheet said the chemical met the GHS criteria for carcinogenicity. That’s gone in 2014, as though the “weight of evidence” has mysteriously shrunk in the United States.

If a multinational company like Chevron “harmonizes” its labels and data sheets to what they can get away with in a particular jurisdiction, what will others do? How can the chemical industry be trusted to provide complete and accurate information about their products without being told to use authoritative lists for carcinogens and other health hazards? How can they be trusted to use exceptions properly?

The answer, of course, is that they can’t.

The Standards Board will vote on the final version of the revised HazComm regulation on March 20. We’re asking them to approve it - so we don’t end up with the federal version that has no lists to classify chemicals.

You can read the letter in full here (PDF), and you can expect our efforts to continue as the process moves forward. The health and safety of workers in California, the US, and abroad - and the fundamental principle of workers’ Right to Know what hazards they face - is too critical to be left to the discretion of the chemical companies.

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