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Hazards in going green

Greening and its related products and practices should not be excluded from any discussion on occupational safety and health.

Occupational Hygienist at REA Envirohealth International, Harold Oxley, made this assertion yesterday, as he led one of the seminars at Accra Beach Hotel for Occupational Safety and Health week.

With Zero in on Safety as this year’s theme, Oxley stressed that people should not assume that “green” meant there were no associated dangers, and encouraged the public to discover what popular buzzwords actually meant.

Observing that it was often assumed that “environmentally friendly” and “green” meant a product was entirely safe, Oxley revealed that “the classification of “green” was sometimes given if the [concentration of the harmful] substance is below a certain percentage… Companies are allowed to omit certain hazardous products from the label if they keep the percentage down.”

Although the green economy’s raison d’etre is focussed on improving human well-being, while significantly reducing environmental risk, Oxley said, that as with any activity, job or product, those associated with the “green theme” had their drawbacks as well.

“We have to make sure that we’re looking at a safe transition [to greening] because something that is good for the world [environment] could bring with it additional challenges,” he said.

Expanding on this notion, the environmental professional noted that OSH hazards existed within the wind, solar and recycling industries.

He said: “Solar is deemed to be a green energy because the panels don’t give off emissions like fossil fuels…, but someone has to make the panels and information put out by the ILO state that in the manufacturing of the materials for panels … [persons] are exposed to the smelting of copper, and copper fumes are toxic.

“There are over 15 hazardous materials or toxic cleaning agents that are involved in the manufacturing of these items for solar.”

Similar challenges apply to the solid waste industry. Oxley highlighted the fact that discarded items such as televisions and computer monitors, which have chemical compounds such as mercury, chromium and zinc, pose a danger for workers.

“Persons have to handle these… When it comes to recycling … in many developing countries, people physically go through the garbage, so we have to be careful we’re not exposing people to these hazards,” he underlined.

Quick to state that he was not “anti-green”, Oxley said, that instead, he hoped persons would not jump on a bandwagon. He observed that it was important for sustainable development – meeting human needs while preserving the environment – to drive green initiatives, and for risk assessments, which are addressed in the Safety and Health at Work Act, to be undertaken for all work, whether “green” or not.

“Too many of the hazards and risks that people encounter in the workplace are manageable, but just ignored. There is going to be some degree of sacrifice [for development], but it doesn’t have to be in the mortality and morbidity of workers because they use these things,” he stressed.

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