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close this bookYour Health and Safety at Work: A Collection of Modules - Your Body at Work (ILO, 1996, 40 p.)
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentPreface
View the documentGoal of the Module
View the documentObjectives
View the documentI. Introduction
Open this folder and view contentsII. Routes of entry
Open this folder and view contentsIII. Effects of toxic substances
View the documentIV. Role of the health and safety representative
View the documentV. Summary
View the documentExercise: Hazards and your health
View the documentManuals already published
View the documentBack cover

IV. Role of the health and safety representative

Health and safety representative

Your role is to work proactively (this means taking action before there is a problem) to eliminate hazards from the workplace as much as possible, to make sure workers are protected, and to educate workers about occupational hazards.

Eliminating hazards from the work environment is always the first choice for preventing disease.

When hazards cannot be eliminated, they should be controlled. Workers should press management to introduce effective controls in the workplace such as engineering controls (for example, a mechanical handling device so workers do not have to come into contact with chemicals); administrative controls (such as reducing the number of hours workers perform certain hazardous jobs); substituting safer chemicals or work processes for particularly hazardous ones; and by providing personal protective equipment, such as gloves (however, this is the least desirable method of control). (For more information, see the Module Controlling hazards.)

Steps to help you reach the goal of eliminating respiratory hazards from the workplace:

1. Work with your union and the employer to make sure the air in the workplace is monitored regularly for hazards. Air monitoring is an effective way of finding out the precise levels of contaminants in the air. (Unfortunately, the equipment and personnel needed to do air monitoring can be difficult to get.)

2. Learn the results of the air monitoring and compare the results with national or international standards for the materials being used in your workplace.

3. Work with your union and the employer to have regular medical checks performed on all workers who may be exposed to chemicals or other hazardous work processes. Request the results of these tests.

4. Unions should organize bans to prohibit or severely restrict the use of particularly hazardous substances such as asbestos. Some unions have already organized such bans and others should do the same. (Many of the International Trade Secretariats have information on hazardous substances.)

5. Work with your union and the employer to introduce controls that will prevent workers from being exposed to respiratory hazards.

6. Check the labels on chemical containers and request to see hazard data sheets (sometimes known as material safety data sheets, MSDS) on all hazardous materials used in the workplace to learn what is in them and what are the recommended protections. If you cannot obtain hazard data sheets through your employer, you or your union can always request them directly from the chemical manufacturer.

7. Look for dust or mist that you can see on work surfaces or on your skin, hair and clothing. If you can see mist or dust settled on things, then it is likely that you inhaled some of the chemical while it was in the air.

8. Make sure that ventilation systems are checked regularly to ensure they are operating effectively.

9. Develop and distribute a survey asking your co-workers about their health and safety concerns. Collecting information, for example, on immediate symptoms such as a burning sensation of the skin, nose or throat, dizziness, headaches, coughs, bronchitis, colds or flu that will not go away or that keep coming back, can help to identify problem areas in the workplace. Once you have the information, work with your union and the employer to treat workers with health problems and to clean up the most hazardous areas right away.

10. Pay attention to new workers and visitors. They are “newly exposed” to the workplace and can tell you if they have health problems only when they come into the workplace. This also can help you to identify problem areas.

Here are some steps to help you reach the goal of preventing the absorption and ingestion of hazardous substances:

1. The first choice of protection is to eliminate the hazard completely.

2. Workers should press management to introduce controls into the workplace to prevent workers from being exposed to chemical, physical and biological hazards.

3. Personal hygiene (cleanliness) is an important factor in preventing both skin diseases and the ingestion of hazardous chemical and biological agents. Therefore, make sure workers do not eat, drink or smoke at their work areas.

4. Washing facilities should be available for workers. Work with the union and the employer to provide workers with washing and changing facilities. Workers also should be educated in the importance of keeping their work clothing, skin and machines clean.

5. Proper food storage areas should be provided for workers so they do not store food in their work areas.

6. Work with your union and the employer to provide workers with a clean place to eat away from their work areas.

7. If workers are provided with personal protective equipment (such as gloves), then the equipment must be appropriate for the individual hazards in their jobs. For example, some types of gloves only provide protection against certain chemicals. Workers should also be educated in the importance of wearing their protective equipment.

8. Ask workers if they have had any vomiting or diarrhoea and if so, try to determine whether the cause was ingestion of chemical or biological agents. Work with the union and the employer to provide medical attention to those workers.