Occupational health

Global Issues

Chemical safety in the workplace - the role of the international chemical safety cards

Richard Brown
WHO Geneva, Switzerland

Many chemical substances used in workplaces have the potential to cause harm to human health and/or the environment if not transported, handled and disposed of appropriately. It is recognised that lack of information about chemical hazards can be a significant problem for both management and workers in workplaces in less developed countries and in small and medium-sized enterprises. The International Chemical Safety Cards (ICSCs) are developed by WHO in collaboration with the International Labour Organization (ILO) as an authoritative source of information on safety of chemicals aimed at different user levels. The ICSCs are intended to provide essential health and safety information on chemicals in a clear way for use at the shop-floor level by workers, and by those responsible for safety and health in factories, agriculture, construction and other workplaces.

The ICSCs follow a fixed format which is designed to give a consistent presentation of the information and is sufficiently concise to be printed onto two sides of a single piece of paper (A4 or Letter size) - an important consideration to permit easy use in the workplace. The ICSCs use standard phrases to convey information in a consistent way, and provide information on chemical properties, short-term and long-term health effects (including symptoms of exposure to identify poisonings), fire and explosion hazards, first aid and fire fighting information for small-scale emergency situations and appropriate preventative measures. Many of the ICSCs now include hazard information using the Globally Harmonized System of Classification & Labelling of Chemicals (GHS), and this is being added progressively as Cards are updated.

The ICSCs are drafted and peer reviewed by expert scientists who work for specialized scientific institutions concerned with occupational health and safety in different countries. ICSCs are created and updated in an ongoing international peer review process and to date ICSCs on approximately 1600 chemical substances are available. To reach as wide an audience as possible, ICSCs are made available free of charge via the Internet, and are translated into a number of languages (currently 15 languages are available, including Chinese, Japanese,Korean, Swahili, Thai, Urdu and a number of European languages). WHO and ILO are currrently seeking support from additional institutions who could provide translations into further languages. For further information please consult the following WHO website:- http://www.who.int/ipcs/publications/icsc/en/index.html