An estimated 440,000 deaths a year worldwide are caused by dangerous substances in the workplace. Many Asian countries have fast growing economies and, as they industrialize, proper labeling of chemicals to protect workers is becoming important. This was the impetus behind a meeting in the Philippine capital involving the International Labor Organization, other international groups, and officials from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
Manufacturing is a big part of the booming economies of Southeast Asia, and that means more chemicals being used in the workplace.
Speaking in Manila, Pavan Baichoo of the International Labor Organization(ILO), says economic success comes at a price.
"Chemicals are virtually everywhere. If you look at computers ... they use a lot of chemicals including mercury and solvents. Malaysia has a huge petroleum industry," said Mr. Baichoo. "Those that make shoes, leather goods, all of those, textiles, use chemicals to bleach cotton, to actually soften cow hide, to make shoes, all of that."
The ILO., the United Nations, and others at a Manila meeting that opened Monday reiterated calls for a Globally Harmonized System, or GHS, of labels and information to ensure that workers and consumers are aware of the dangers of chemicals they are exposed to. The target date for implementation is 2008.
Jonathan Krueger, with the United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR), says standardization is vital.
"Currently around the world you have this very wide variety of different types of labelings, systems, pictograms - uses of languages may vary from country to country," explained Mr. Krueger. "And so, through these various different systems that may not be understood, from country to country, the GHS can bring together a harmonized system that we can work with in order to understand together the possible hazards, and how chemicals should be used appropriately."
Delegates at the Manila meeting also heard that it is not only workers who are threatened by poorly identified chemicals.
Philippine Undersecretary of Trade Elmer Hernandez says a tragedy this year in the Philippines could have been avoided with proper labeling.
"Several months back, 27 children were killed and 77 others were hospitalized in Bohol, Philippines, when an agricultural pesticide left in the kitchen was mistaken for cooking flour and mixed with other ingredients in preparing a local sweet delicacy," said Mr. Hernandez. "Such a disaster would have been prevented if only a more effective chemical hazard communication system had been in place and strictly observed."
The workshop in Manila lasts until October 20 and will discuss the development of national implementation strategies on dangerous substance labeling for in ASEAN member countries.
Within ASEAN, Indonesia, Thailand, and the Philippines have already been chosen to test the proposed labeling and information system.