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Women Workers and Chemicals – Part 2 in a three-part series.

WOMEN WORKERS AND PLASTICS MANUFACTURING

There is now a credible body of research showing that workers in the plastics industry are exposed to unsafe levels of hazardous chemicals (including carcinogens and endocrine disrupters). These chemicals include acrylamide, acrylonitrile, benzene, benzopyrene, bisphenol A, butadiene, carbon tetrachloride, formaldehyde, polybrominated biphenols, phthalates, polycyclic aromatic carbons, styrene, heavy metals, and solvents. Women, who make up a large proportion of the plastics workforce, are at particular risk, experiencing breast cancer and reproductive problems at significantly elevated rates. While plastic exposures in the automotive industry have been the most studied, it’s reasonable to assume the findings apply to any industry where workers are dealing with plastics processing.

A 2012 study by Robert De Matteo et al. summarizes the findings of a number of researchers. Among their most worrisome findings:

• Plastics workers often labour under very poor working conditions with inadequate controls (e.g. little or no local exhaust ventilation) and lax enforcement.
• Plastics workers are “chronically exposed” to potential carcinogens and endocrine disruptors. They carry a body burden of contaminants far exceeding those in the general public.
• Current methods of determining exposure, generally based on air sampling, are not adequate. For example, women often experience serious symptoms and illnesses that can clearly be linked to chemical exposure, despite periodic air sampling results that are within the current occupational exposure limit (OEL). OELs only evaluate how much chemical enters the body through inhalation, without taking into account chemicals that may be absorbed through the skin (for example, by handling materials recently sprayed with fire retardant, or through proximity to spray-painting) or accidentally ingested. They also do not address the potential compounding effects of exposure to multiple chemicals.
• Growing evidence links cancer and reproductive risk to even low-dose exposure to endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs).

What can be done?
The authors of this study argue strongly for a more comprehensive regulatory review of chemical hazards and “swift regulatory action” to protect worker safety in this industry. In the meantime, employers, who are required under the law to safeguard workers’ health, should:

• When possible, eliminate the use of harmful chemicals by substituting safer ones, such as non-estrogenic monomers and additives.
• Ensure proper ventilation: each machine should be locally ventilated to prevent the release of chemicals into the workplace, and the ventilation systems should be equipped with scrubbers.
• Use wet methods to control dust during drilling, grinding and sanding.
• Ensure all workers are provided with, and trained in the use of, protective clothing and equipment as appropriate. Be aware of possible exposure of those working in proximity, not just workers at the station itself.
• Honour the legal obligations set down by the Occupational Health & Safety Act, the Hazardous Materials Act, and WHMIS 2015 (Canada’s Workplace Hazardous Materials Information System).
• Ensure workers who work with or are exposed to hazardous materials have WHMIS training, access to the relevant Safety Data Sheets, and are trained in safety precautions when working with these substances.
• Provide all workers with additional information where appropriate such as the National Network on Environments and Women’s Health brochure, “Nails, Salons, Toxics and Your Health,” available in English, Chinese and Vietnamese http://www.nnewh.org/overview.php?section=4. The dangerous occurrence of working in a nail salon is explored further in Part 3 of this series on Women Workers and Chemicals.

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