Managing Metalworking Risks


DEARBORN, Mich. – How to protect worker health while promoting industrial progress? That isa critical challenge facingstakeholders in the metal removal fluid environment, and one answer is to adopt the precautionary principle: when there is evidence harm may occur, take precautions now. Dont wait for definitive scientific proof of cause and effect.

Metalworking fluids resemble chemical systems, not single chemicals, and this complicates their hazard status, keynote speaker John Howard, former director of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, told the Metal Removal Fluid Symposium here earlier this month. Both a medical doctor and an attorney, Howard noted that workers exposures to metal removal fluid systems are associated with both respiratory and dermal disorders.

But there is great uncertainty, he acknowledged. The issue is broader. How can we improve the metalworking fluid environment? Occupational and environmental implications are not known, so we must control risks at the earliest opportunity.

The biggest problem in the past, Howard contended, was the delay between some evidence of harm and corrective action. We must heed early warnings. This is the lesson from asbestos, PCBs, antibiotic use in animal feeds, and other harmful exposures. And long-term health effects must be monitored.

The current default setting, said Howard, is that lack of proof of harm is equal to evidence of safety. This must change. We are seeing a basic shift, for example with the European Unions REACH. Industry must now describe risks and actions to mitigate those risks before marketing chemical substances.

When to act is always difficult and controversial, Howard continued. Early evidence of health or safety risks is often too thin or flimsy for government to act, but voluntary groups are not as paralyzed as government regulatory agencies.

So how can society protect workers and advance technology? Proof of safety is difficult and uncertainty is a factor, said Howard, but adoption of the precautionary principle offers a way forward. This principle is most commonly defined as follows: When an activity raises threats of harm to the environment or human health, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically. And, Howard continued, the proponent of the activity or technology bears the burden of proof if there is evidence that harm may occur.

Critics say the precautionary principle stifles innovation, for example in the case of genetically modified food, or causes unintended consequences, as the ban on DDT has prevented eradication of malaria-carrying mosquitoes. But Howard argued against the critics. Monitor, monitor, monitor, he urged. What other alternatives do we have?

Applying the precautionary principle to the metalworking fluid environment, coupled with adherence to the principles of green chemistry and a focus on sustainability, will allow for the design of resilient industrial systems that safeguard worker health, Howard said. Wherever there is evidence that harm may result, worker exposures must be avoided. And early warnings must be monitored.

The metalworking fluid environment is a good place to start, Howard concluded. Focus on originators of the activity, study and share the risks, and select the safest alternatives.

The Metal Removal Fluid Symposium, Oct. 5-8 in Dearborn, Mich., was sponsored by the Independent Lubricant Manufacturers Association, the Automotive Industry Action Group, the American Industrial Hygiene Association and UEIL, the European Union of Independent Lubricant Manufacturers.

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