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From arsenic to zinc: Protecting workers from dangerous substances with International Chemical Safety Cards

Many workers in the EU face dangerous substances on a regular basis. Indeed, 17% report being exposed to chemical products or substances for at least a quarter of their daily working time.  Workers at shop-floor level should have access to information about every substance they are in contact with, so they know how to prevent health risks or what to do in the event of an accident.

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International Chemical Safety Cards (ICSC) are a joint initiative between the World Health Organization (WHO) and the International Labour Organization (ILO), with support from the European Commission. They can help businesses instruct and inform their workers about dangerous substances. Each card is a comprehensive, peer-reviewed data sheet featuring a particular substance, giving employers resources to take preventive measures. The ICSC scheme can be used by employers to protect workers alongside other technical and organisational measures, such as use of the STOP principle and comprehensive training.

What is included on the ICSCs and how can they be used in the workplace?

The ILO’s dedicated database contains 1,777 ICSC records, each one dedicated to a different dangerous substance. The cards include substances such as mercury, lead, nickel and lithium, along with extensive information on how to keep workers safe during exposure.

Each card displays information about the substance, such as its physical appearance, chemical formula, combustibility, environmental effects and directions for storage, including classification and labelling. The cards also offer substantial information on both short and long-term health effects of substances, taking into account certain factors like working processes or temperatures.

Along with general information about each dangerous substance, the cards also feature tailored practical information that can be used by workers to prevent safety and health risks to themselves and other colleagues. This includes what to do in the event of a spillage, how to correctly store the substance, symptoms to look out for in the event of inhalation, ingestion or contact with skin, and how to administer first aid should such an incident occur.

Each card also includes practical notes explaining what to do during or after contact with the substance. This could include remembering to use breathing protection equipment, ensuring that work clothes are not taken home, or washing hands before eating or drinking.

Raising awareness among workers

Employers should explore the cards and make sure that they have distributed the relevant information to their employees. Workers can also use the cards before becoming exposed to a particular chemical. This can contribute to promoting a culture of prevention. At the same time, it can ensure that any incidents involving these substances are dealt with swiftly, safely and in the correct manner.

Crucially, while the cards offer lots of useful information, they should also be used in combination with EU-OSHA’s other sources of practical guidance on dangerous substances. This is because each card deals with a single substance, whereas in reality, workers often use a mixture of substances in their daily job. Using other tools and sources of advice as well as the cards can ensure that workers are safe, no matter the combination of substances. The ILO also offers further guidance on the topic of hazardous work and the wider field of occupational safety and health.

More information on dangerous substances can also be found on OSHwiki. Don’t forget to keep up to date with the latest news of the Healthy Workplaces Campaign by following it on Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter, using the hashtag #EUhealthyworkplaces.