This year marks the twentieth anniversary of the Bhopal chemicals plant disaster, following which some 20,000 people died. The International Labour Organization estimates that of the two million work-related fatalities each year, nearly a quarter (439,999) are caused by chemicals. Today, World Day for Safety and Health at Work (April 28), ILO TV reports on how the Bhopal disaster has led to measures to promote safety in the workplace.
Bhopal, the world’s worst ever chemical industry disaster. A gas leak from a factory producing pesticides caused a deadly cloud to spread over an Indian city. The after effects are still being felt today.
More and more chemicals are coming onto the market every year and crossing international borders. Trucks carry hazard warning symbols which should be internationally recognized. If there’s a spillage, a worker anywhere can see at a glance what he’s handling and what the risks are. But until now, there’s been no single international system for classifying and labelling chemicals.
At this factory in Switzerland producing fragrances, workers handle two and a half thousand different chemicals arriving from all over the world… They sample every consignment, to check that they have been properly labelled.
Dr. Raymond Calame, Vice President, Corporate Safety and Environmental Affairs, Givaudan
Normally, from Europe, they are according to the EU labelling system. The US has a different system of course, but also with a label that we understand. Some of the countries have not such a sophisticated system as the EU and the US.
There even used to be different symbols for road, rail, shipping and airfreight. But now the United Nations, based on an initiative by the International Labour Organization, has published a new worldwide System for the Classification and Labelling of Chemicals. It arose from international conventions in the 1990s drawn up in the wake of the Bhopal disaster.
Dr. Jukka Takala, ILO SafeWork Director
I think that the basic saying behind it is “safety regulations are written with blood.” Something must happen first, otherwise nothing, no prevention methods are really taken seriously. Bhopal was an excellent demonstration of that particular thing.
The symbols are designed to be clear and easy to understand. And workers all over the world can now refer to International Chemical Safety Cards. The cards, developed by the ILO and other UN agencies, summarize key facts relating to dangerous chemicals. Available in around 20 languages, they’re being consulted on the Internet almost a million times a month.
When the chemical products leave this factory, they travel all around the world. With the new, global system, the ILO hopes that every chemical, at work and at home, will be labelled with lifesaving information everyone can understand.