Vinyl Chloride: jobs at risk of exposure and consequences to human health

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In the Italian Constitution, the art. associated to the Health and Safety of workers at their place of work, and the community in general, is number 32 and, by virtue of the existence of this article, every worker has the right to a healthy and safe work environment.

On the other hand, article 2087 of the Civil Code explains the purpose behind this civil right by defining the responsibilities of employers and their duty to safeguard the physical and moral integrity of their employees. It further establishes a hierarchy of controls including engineering controls and personal protective equipment. Hence the need to address the subject of vinyl chloride, exposure risks and consequences on human health.

Jobs where workers risk exposure to vinyl chloride

That the improper use of toxic or harmful substances can cause serious damage to the health of workers is not new. Furthermore, use of these substances can cause major accidents and even lead to death.

Vinyl chloride” is considered a harmful substance, and exposure to its chemical compounds can cause serious damage to human health, lead to serious diseases and even to cancer.

To better understand the emergency linked to this chemical substance, we need to go back to 1983 when in Porto Marghera (Italy), Gabriele Bortolozzo, a worker in charge of cleaning the autoclaves in which vinyl chloride monomer was manufactured, tired of seeing continuous violations of the law in terms of pollution, reported the situation to the Mestre Public Prosecutor. This action gave rise to the Porto Marghera court case which uncovered the environmental disaster that had taken place and the large number of deaths which had occurred owing to worker exposure to this toxic substance. The general public learned of this incident only years later when, on March 7, 2002 an episode of the TV program “Report” spoke about the court case being brought against the petrochemical industry of Porto Marghera (Italy) for “environmental pollution and homicide”.

Nowadays, when we ask ourselves: “What has changed?”. The answer is: “Nothing”, because workers still continue to die of vinyl chloride – in fact, cancer is usually diagnosed only a very long time, up to two to three decades, after exposure to this harmful substance. For this reason, various court cases similar to those held for the deaths which occurred from exposure to asbestos, have taken place over the years. But let’s take a step back: what is “vinyl chloride” used for? For the people who do not know, the polymerization of this chemical compound is used in the production of PVC. So, it is the petrochemical workers who are primarily at risk of exposure to vinyl chloride. It goes without saying that the onus is on the employer to identify and evaluate possible respiratory hazards in the workplace and, after having conducted appropriate  risk assessments, implement engineering controls and, if engineering controls are not in place or not feasible, provide workers with suitable personal protective equipment. Workers who are most at risk of exposure are those whose who deal directly with the production of PVC, machinery cleaners and workers whose job it is to dispose of plastic waste. In short, wherever vinyl chloride is found, it is the responsibility and occupation of man to act in such a way as to minimize the danger connected to the use of this substance and its effects on the environment.

Use masks and respirators to prevent lung diseases

Workers, moreover, have the right to be adequately trained and informed. Vocational training is in fact required when working with hazardous substances such as “vinyl chloride” and it is the employer’s responsibility to provide said training.

In order to prevent lung diseases, it is therefore necessary that exposed workers wear respiratory protective equipment (RPE). These are specific devices, i.e. respirators with masks, helmets, hoods, that have the proper protection factor for the purpose intended. In Italy, their use is governed by article 387 of D.P.R. dated April 27th 1955 n. 547. The protection of workers’ respiratory system against chemical agents needs to be ensured through the use of self-contained breathing apparatus and/or other appropriate air purifying devices. However, it should be noted that the “protection of workers” against risks arising from exposure to chemical and physical agents at the workplace is governed in Italy by “LD No. 277 dated 15 August 1991“. In addition, every RPD, respiratory protective device, as classified in Italy in “LD No. 475 dated 1992″, also falls under category III Annex 1 of the EU Regulation 2016/425 which, together with “LD 81/2008, ex 626 of 1994” specifies that workers are to wear and are to be trained on the use of PPE.

With the aim of ensuring compliance to the aforementioned legislation and regulations, respirator manufacturers, after having complied with all the related normative specifications, need to affix a CE mark on all the products they manufacture if these fall under the higher risk categories.  EU Regulation 2016/425 lays down 3 categories of risk against which PPEs are intended to protect users:

Category I – which includes exclusively the following minimal risks: (a) superficial mechanical injury; (b) contact with cleaning materials of weak action or prolonged contact with water; (c) contact with hot surfaces not exceeding 50 °C; (d) damage to the eyes due to exposure to sunlight (other than during observation of the sun); (e) atmospheric conditions that are not of an extreme nature.

Category II – which includes risks other than those listed in Categories I and III.

Category III – which includes exclusively the risks that may cause very serious consequences such as death or irreversible damage to health relating to the following: (a) substances and mixtures which are hazardous to health; (b) atmospheres with oxygen deficiency; (c) harmful biological agents; (d) ionising radiation; (e) high-temperature environments the effects of which are comparable to those of an air temperature of at least 100 °C; (f) low-temperature environments the effects of which are comparable to those of an air temperature of – 50 °C or less; (g) falling from a height; (h) electric shock and live working; (i) drowning; (j) cuts by hand-held chainsaws; (k) high-pressure jets; (l) bullet wounds or knife stabs; (m) harmful noise.