3 April 2014

On 1 March 2014, updated requirements concerning hazard communication for hazardous chemicals exported from the European Union (EU) came into effect. These rules, part of Regulation (EU) No. 649/2012, are designed to ensure that those in countries outside the EU who use those exported chemicals, are made aware of the hazards involved, by requiring they be supplied:

  • classified and packaged and labelled

  • with Safety Data Sheets (SDSs), and

  • in the local official language where practicable.

However, as a new film by US documentary film-maker, Heather White has highlighted, these requirements, which have existed for some time, are not preventing poor health and safety conditions in the global supply chain that produces the laptops, mobile phones and tablets that are subsequently sold in the EU.

In the film, a number of young Chinese electronics workers with health conditions linked to exposure to carcinogens and other chemicals are interviewed.

One young worker described her job in a factory in China cleaning phone chips using chemicals, in a room without ventilation, from 8am to 11pm each day.

The film highlights several workers with diseases such as leukaemia, linked to exposure to benzene, as well as other cancers related to various toxic chemicals used in China’s factories.

The documentary calls for chemicals such as benzene to be replaced by other safer alternatives but also calls on global brands to take responsibility for working conditions at distant supplier factories, and for better occupational health and safety practices.

The film warns that not only are workers working in very toxic environments, but consumers who buy the products are also being exposed to chemicals such as benzene. For example, benzene is said to be widely used in many Chinese industries, for sporting goods, printing and in electronic products.

The issue of health and safety in distant locations in the supply chain may become an increasingly important issue for Western health and safety professionals. Just as it took time before the EU legislated on the export of chemicals, it may one day attract EU legislation.

Recently, Associated British Foods, the holding company of the British retailer Primark, agreed to pay out £5.4 million in compensation to 580 workers or their family members who were hurt or killed when the eight-storey Rana Plaza factory building collapsed last year in Bangladesh.