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Christian Friis Bach

Bach's Blog

The Executive Secretary's Blog

Millions of workers are exposed every day to hazardous chemicals around the globe, in developing and developed countries. These chemicals are purchased and shipped from all over the world and differences in language and labelling could make it even more dangerous.  However, because of a true success story of international cooperation, handling chemicals is becoming less dangerous every day. This is worth celebrating on 28 April, the World Day for Safety and Health at Work.

In the European Union alone, up to 15 % of workers handle hazardous chemicals daily. And an astonishing 19 % of workers report being exposed to toxic vapours for a quarter or more of their working time.  Exposure to dangerous chemicals in the work place can cause cancer, reproductive, mutagenic and respiratory disorders, permanent or transient damage to organs or skin diseases. Harm can occur either from a single short exposure, multiple exposures or by the long-term accumulation of chemicals in the body.  
The International Labour Organisation estimates that more than two million people die each year from occupational and work-related diseases and that most occupational diseases are caused by chemical agents. Globally, the annual number of cases of non-fatal work-related diseases is estimated to be 160 million. Aside from the human and personal consequences of this, the associated economic costs are estimated to be some 4% of the world gross domestic product. 

While this shows the danger of this type of work, we must also recognize the many benefits these chemicals bring us.  They are present in our soap and other hygiene products, our medicines, our clothes and even our food.  They are also part of many industrial processes used to develop products that we use every day to make our lives easier, safer and more comfortable.  

Therefore, the international community in the early 1990’s recognized that if chemicals are going to be shipped and used worldwide, it was important to create a sound global management system.  This became the Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labelling of Chemicals (GHS) – also called “The Purple Book” – and the secretariat was placed in UNECE.  This system, adopted in 2002, has been gradually implemented by individual countries ever since. It is currently implemented or being implemented in 68 countries all around the world, from Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil and the US, in the European Union, Switzerland, Gambia, Nigeria, Senegal, Zambia, Australia, China, Indonesia and the Philippines.

Once a chemical is identified as carcinogen, toxic or flammable in one country, it is identified as such in all countries using the system. The economic impact for manufacturers is huge since they do not have to conform to different classification and labelling criteria.  But most importantly, workers in all these countries enjoy the same level of protection thanks to universally agreed pictograms that identify the level of danger, from that of a skin irritant to a deadly substance. They are able to identify the hazards posed by a chemical immediately and apply the appropriate protection measures.
In the United States, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration estimated in 2012 that the implementation of the GHS in the workplace would increase the safety of some 43 million workers. It estimated the economic benefits associated with the reduction in safety and health risks to some $266 million a year, with an additional $585 million a year coming from cost reductions and productivity improvements.  

Last year, the Canadian government announced plans to adopt the system and estimated its projected health benefits to 30.5 million Canadian dollars per year.

The Food and Agriculture Organization  and the World Health Organization are currently implementing the GHS in the field of pesticides, which will benefit hundreds of millions of farmers all over the world.

With 68 countries implementing the system, we have already achieved major progress. Yet there are 193 Member States in the UN, and that leaves 125 countries to go.  I urge every country which has not yet joined this success story to begin the process now.  Together we can make a difference to the protection of millions of men and women by significantly reducing the risks of dealing with hazardous chemicals.


If you wonder why the animal accompanying my blog is a cow, it is because cows are fascinating animals; the cows of our host country, Switzerland, are famous for their quality; and because I am still a farmer, and miss the cows I had in Denmark. Now I got one back.