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June 2013

Administrator's Message

Hazard Communication and the Right to Know

By Michael Wood

Given that the fight to establish the right of both workers and the larger community to know about chemical hazards to which they were exposed was largely waged between 25 and 30 years ago, it is easy to forget that it did not always come easy.

Whatever the challenges we face in implementing chemical hazard communication rules, few of us today would argue with the principle that there is a right to be informed about the risks one is facing - and to be able to protect oneself from particular chemical risks. But it was not always so.

During the decades before the passage of worker and community right-to-know laws, opponents to such laws (at least some of them well-intentioned) argued against providing too much information. Whether they were trying to avoid unnecessary fear or trying to protect legitimate trade secrets, many seriously argued that too much information about chemical exposures would be counter-productive. And while we may agree that communicating about risks can be complex and at times difficult, it is and should remain well settled that workers have a right to know about the chemicals in their workplaces.

The simple truth is that some people are particularly at risk, perhaps because of sensitization created by a past exposure. If they must rely upon the assurances of employers and manufacturers who are looking at "averages" and "norms," they will face risks that they would have chosen to avoid. And some people are simply more cautious than others – the point is, they have a right to be.

The challenge of hazard communication remains with us, of course. The messages can be complex, and the new standards reflecting an international consensus approach will create confusion, particularly over the short term.

And, unfortunately, not every manufacturer has gotten the message about the importance of sharing information. At the heart of the Brazilian Blowout controversy, for example, was a manufacturer's refusal to share either accurate or clear information about the formaldehyde risks of its product – to the point of actively labeling the product "formaldehyde free" based on a somewhat esoteric argument over nomenclature. There never was a question about the content – only what to call it.

Manufacturers also sometimes have an interesting notion about trade secrets. I remember a business a number of years ago that was concerned about revealing the chemical composition of the artists' paints that it manufactured and sold. One example – the company didn't want to reveal that its "Cad Yellow" contained cadmium. Of course, if it didn't, it would have been a matter of false advertising.

We are surrounded by potentially hazardous chemicals – more every day, it seems. And we have both a growing awareness of their risks and a growing awareness that living a "chemical free" life really is no longer a possibility (and probably has not been for many decades).

In that context, the effort to provide workers with basic information so they can understand and, to some degree, manage their own risks and minimize their own exposures is as important as it ever has been. The battle to create the regulatory framework may have been fought a quarter century ago. But the struggle to make it a reality occurs every day in workplaces across the country. And it's every bit as important today as it was in the 1980s.

Michael Wood
Oregon OSHA Administrator

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