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Spring Is the Season of Renewal…

Renewal is about understanding options, making choices and learning from experience going forward. In this issue, we share information for new beginnings on a number of fronts. In our Message, we want to highlight two things: Workers’ Memorial Day and the new Hazard Communications Standard.

Long and anxiously anticipated, the new HazCom Standard was announced March 26, just as we prepared to go to press. An article in this issue describes its main features. What we want to stress is the mountain of progress that its adoption represents.

Everyone knows that chemicals are everywhere in construction and throughout other industrial sectors of our economy. What is less well-considered is that hundreds of new chemicals are developed every year. Nor are they developed only by American manufacturers. Many are developed in Canada, Europe and the other industrialized nations of the world. Wherever they are designed, they are shipped all over the world in our modern, global economy.

Though they move into the global market, their health risks are not determined in advance (as, for instance, are the risks of new pharmaceuticals). Instead, companies are encouraged to share any information they encounter about illness or injuries caused by the chemicals, and some governmental or private scientific groups – with limited research budgets – attempt to determine what levels of exposure are acceptable for some of the more prominent ones. However, because hazard assessment is piecemeal and lags substantially behind the introduction of new chemicals into the market, it is inevitable that workers are commonly exposed to substances whose real dangers are unknown.

Almost 20 years ago in Europe, Canada and elsewhere, governments initiated efforts to address this growing calamity, and, eventually, the United Nations adopted what is known as the Globally Harmonized Standard (GHS) to ensure consistent chemical hazard communication that is easy to absorb by any worker anywhere, despite the diversity of languages and cultures of workers all over the world.

In the United States, however, regulatory upgrades come ever so slowly due to the power of corporate lobbyists, fueled this past year by an intense desire to unseat President Obama. Most likely, that pressure played a role in the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) holding the proposed standard for several months longer than technically allowed by law, raising doubt in some quarters whether the standard would see the light of day before next fall’s elections.

But it appears that the globalization of the world economy actually worked against the narrow political interests of the Chamber of Commerce and other business lobbyists. In an unusual twist, American chemical manufacturers found it in their own interest to support an OSHA regulation because, after all, they sell plenty of their chemicals outside the U.S. and already have to meet the labeling requirements of the GHS. Why pay for two different labeling regimens? Without their resistance, unions and public health professionals were able to mount a strong campaign to finally push the new HazCom Standard through.

That is a significant gain for American working men and women.

And that is something from which we can all draw strength and resolve as we approach Workers’ Memorial Day on April 28. While this occasion is a solemn one, it always reaffirms the need and duty to fight for safer work. Workers’ Memorial Day marks a tragic passage in a family’s life but allows us to draw strength from the memory of those who lost their lives unnecessarily under tragic circumstances. It reminds us that the fight for on-the-job safety and health never ends.

This spring, as we again honor the struggle for safe work and healthy families, the new HazCom Standard provides a sign of renewed potential for progress.

In springtime, hope springs eternal and, sometimes, for good reason.

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