Hesperian Health Guides

Safe chemicals: Who's responsible?

Thousands of chemicals are created and used each year. But as important as they are to our economies, the laws and practices about chemicals do not protect people enough from their harmful effects. Chemical companies, governments, factory owners, and others who oversee their development, sale, and use are part of a system that has harmed people all over the world.

  • Chemical companies should prove a chemical is safe before it can be sold and used. Only a few thousand chemicals have been studied for their effects on people and the environment. Almost none have been studied for how they interact with other chemicals in the body. If testing is carried out, it often does not include all health effects.
  • Companies and governments must take responsibility for chemicals in use. The company that sells or uses the chemical should be responsible for making it safe for workers and consumers. If people get sick from a chemical, governments must move quickly to regulate or ban it.
  • Chemicals should be safe for people inside and outside the factory. "Safe" exposures for workers are set higher than what is considered safe outside the workplace. We all deserve to be safe from toxic chemicals. Employers should use the same, most protective standards in and out of the factory.
  • Use fewer chemicals in the workplace. Many products release some of the toxic chemicals used to make them after they leave the factory, as they are used, discarded, or recycled. Products should be designed to use fewer chemicals in their manufacture so they will cause fewer problems "from cradle to grave."
  • A chemical should only be replaced by a safer chemical, not by another toxic one. Many companies want to stop using toxic chemicals. However, they often replace one toxic chemical with another one that has not been well studied for health and environmental effects. The new chemical is often just as dangerous, but because its problems have yet to be discovered, it is considered "safer" or "greener."
a woman and a man having a conversation.
I try to buy vegetables without pesticides, but how can I buy a cell phone without chemicals?
You can’t. That’s why we need a system that makes our health and safety more important than their profits.

Safe chemicals in the workplace

If a chemical is to be used in a workplace, it is the employer’s responsibility to choose one that:

  • is essential to the product, which could not be made without it.
  • is safer than other possible alternatives.
  • is used in smaller amounts than other alternative chemicals.
  • can be used and disposed of without harming the workers or the community.

It is the boss’s responsibility to give you chemical information in a language you understand. Workers who do not read well can learn about chemicals from pictures, videos, demonstrations, explanations, and hands-on practice. When you start a new job or are assigned new work, your supervisor should train you on the safe use of the chemicals you work with, their health effects, and what to do if there is an accident.

a woman speaking.
To work as machine operators, we are trained in how to work with and use chemicals. We learn how to mix them, how to store them, and how to clean the machines. But when we saw our co-workers getting sick, we realized the trainings didn’t teach us about the chemicals’ health effects.

This page was updated:28 Feb 2021