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Worker exposure to hazardous chemicals is a 'global health crisis'

People - UN Baskut Tuncak

A UN expert has proposed 15 principles that aim to help governments and businesses better protect workers from exposure to hazardous chemicals – an issue he calls a "global health crisis".

The principles feature in a report by Baskut Tuncak (pictured), UN special rapporteur on human rights and toxics. The report, which will be presented to the 39th session of the UN's Human Rights Council, sets out findings from Mr Tuncak's four years of monitoring the issue in industries and countries around the world.

The report argues that many companies and national governments are not meeting their duty to uphold the rights of workers under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. These stipulate the right to safe and healthy working conditions.

The principles broadly cover:

  • the responsibilities and duties of businesses and governments;
  • worker access to information; and
  • 'remedies' to hold those accountable who violate workers rights.

Exploitation?

The International Labour Organization (ILO) estimates that one worker dies every 30 seconds from exposure to toxic chemicals, pesticides, radiation and other hazardous substances.

Speaking to Chemical Watch following the release of the report, Mr Tuncak said this lack of worker protection must be seen as exploitation and possibly modern slavery.

'I'm sure it is expensive for companies to trace chemicals through the tiers of their supply chains but it's a cost of doing business. This a responsibility and moral obligation – and in some jurisdictions a legal obligation' Baskut Tuncak

"I'm sure it is expensive for companies to trace chemicals through the tiers of their supply chains but it's a cost of doing business. This a responsibility and moral obligation – and in some jurisdictions a legal obligation."

Mr Tuncak says in his report that the "importance of the issue has been largely forgotten and deprioritised in relevant international forums, resulting in a lack of global progress in confronting this growing concern".

Some of his principles call on businesses and states to ensure that information about worker exposure to hazardous substances is available and accessible and is never made confidential.

"Employers and suppliers of chemical substances should clearly state in their policies that they will not keep such information secret," the report adds.

Criminal liability

One principle calls for governments to criminalise the practice of allowing worker exposure to hazardous chemicals.

States, the report says, should ensure that national legislation includes the criminal liability of employers and others responsible for exposing workers to substances that are or should be known to be hazardous.

They should investigate and prosecute such cases, ensuring that heads of businesses bear responsibility along with other actors knowingly or negligently involved, it says.

Prosecuting cases will 'motivate businesses to develop and adopt safer practices that engage their responsibility, ranging from substituting to less hazardous alternatives to adopting engineering controls to reduce exposure'

This will "motivate businesses to develop and adopt safer practices that engage their responsibility, ranging from substituting to less hazardous alternatives to adopting engineering controls to reduce exposure".  

In the next few months, Mr Tuncak will gather input from states and other stakeholders on how these principles are reflected in their laws, policies and procedures.

Following this, he plans to present a more elaborated set of principles at a future session of the Human Rights Council, with the aim of developing a framework that states, businesses and other actors can implement.

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