Universal Safety Standards in the Workplace

Safety Standards in the Workplace and You

Recently, chemical production companies, workers, and producers using chemicals in their final products will have noticed some changes in their labeling systems. Known as the GHS, or global harmonization system of labeling, the new labels for chemical containers are an effort at standardizing the identification procedures for many of the world’s largest industrial nations. These nations often do business with each other, which can lead to difficulties when labeling procedures differ between countries and one intake worker might not be able to quickly identify or make sense of a foreign container. If information is viewed as incomplete or is not understood, shipments can be held, returned/delayed, or even destroyed. Furthermore, workers at the end destination may be confused or not be completely informed of the associated risks with a material they’re handling, leading to all kinds of safety issues.

The GHS and other systems like it are examples of a recent push toward standardizing safety protocols throughout the globe. The effort aims to reduce mishaps and loss of time and materials, and increase the safety of workers at all stages of shipping and production with regards to international business. Recently, a discussion on LinkedIn (EHSQ Elite) sparked some interesting points from users over the feasibility and effectiveness of these globally standardized safety systems. Here are a few of the highlights from the discussion; some of the points might help employers to better understand a global market, while others might give some insight into discrepancies that exist even between smaller jurisdictions, such as state to state.

Safety Standards Question by Alan Quilley:

On (America’s) Creation of Global Safety Standards

One (potentially ironic) factor to keep in mind about international standardizations is that they often tend end up awfully close to the way we do things here in the United States. Looking at the GHS chemical labels (which you can find here), for example, you’ll notice that the new system features identification sheets with very similar sections to the old sheets we’ve been using for years. This may often be due to the U.S.’s involvement in spearheading the standardization efforts, but it can also present some unique challenges that become a barrier for effective adoption of the policies worldwide – a major problem, given that’s their exact goal.

One user points out that not all countries that want to get on board with global systems have the same resources that we do here, even if they are a major economic power, or at least producer; prime examples being India and parts of China.

Safety Standards can be Universal:

This can lead to business owners in those regions being financially unable to participate in the standards. If the standards can’t be changed to be easily adoptable by all, this leaves these producers with the choice of being left out of the global system – likely reducing their business prospects – or stretching themselves too thin and eating lower profit margins.

Concerns Over Universal Safety Standards

Other commenters seemed dissatisfied with the evidence behind global standards. They may have a point, too: Sometimes justification for a change can seem strong, while the way in which it is carried out doesn’t seem to adequately address the issue or the diverse needs of a global market, defeating the purpose altogether.

Drawing the Line

Another potentially problematic issue is where we draw the line on which safety policies become standardized and which do not. Already established policies might make nations resistant to change. Canada, for example, requires bathrooms to be on site for all of its workers (not doing so is a violation of health and safety standards). In other countries, this might not be an important stipulation. Which systems we make global and who gets to choose them can become a potentially imperialistic situation in which one nation is imposing standards of safety that another nation disagrees with; these nations either get left behind or compromise their own convictions on safety. Sometimes a one size fits all solution may not be appropriate for this reason.
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A False Sense of Security

Even with the same standard in place, the results from different countries can differ. Inspectors for a company based in China might interpret differently or be more or less strict about a certain global standard than those in the UK, India, the U.S., etc. What this means is that workers may grow complacent with global systems in place, assuming that if a standard has been applied it has been applied equally. In reality, this could cause a laxness that let’s sub-par materials enter markets that would have otherwise rejected them, thus leading to worse conditions than before. The skepticism that comes with the import of materials and goods from a nation with different standards might be healthy in some cases.

But Just Maybe…

Others argued that any case in which a global system could be applied, should be. Safety is safety, and workers worldwide deserve the safety policies and attention that those in the wealthiest nations enjoy. This brings up a good point as to the exact purpose of the standards as well: Are they more about improving safety worldwide or about improving the smoothness of international trade? While safety is important, it seems easier to justify to other nations the idea of improving their economic prospects and bottom line than to tell them they are expected to impose the safety policies of others nations. In a perfect world, perhaps, both issues would be adequately addressed, but global standards remain a largely uncharted terrain that is just now beginning to take shape.

If you were asked to head international standards, what would you do?