A pigment of the imagination

Finishing Articles - REACH and the Finishing Industry

Malcolm Griffiths looks at how REACH is going to affect the finishing industry. Since joining the paint industry in 1963, Malcolm has worked for several leading coating manufacturers. He is a graduate in chemistry, Fellow of the Institute of Metal Finishing and a Chartered Member of the Institute of Occupational Safety and Health. He now runs the independent coatings advisory service Ad Qual Castech

It is a little late maybe but A Happy New Year! Let’s hope it’s a good one.

I thought I would start 2008 on an optimistic note. Usually I explain to people that I am a pessimist – that way, most things are as bad as I expect but rarely worse! Anyway, for once I feel confident so excuse me if I hop from topic to topic in mild hysteria. The big talking point in the last couple of months has been the EU’s most important piece of legislation for many years, the Registration Evaluation Authorisation and restriction of Chemicals (REACH). There are so many symposiums and conferences about the subject, that you can just tell it is going to be a really big event. The concept is good, with the emphasis being put on manufacturers and suppliers of chemicals to prove that their products are safe, rather than governments and others having to prove they are not.

Annex I of the regulations is concerned with identifying how a chemical safety assessment must be carried out. Of course, it can be quite difficult to prove absolute safety so the methods of testing used and the interpretation of the results will be all important. No doubt there will be a great deal of political lobbying by a variety of organisations, to add to the fun and games.

For the immediate future, the important thing is to make sure that your products AND your application processes have been registered. The real problem may be that there will be so many queries flying up and down the supply chain that companies may be swamped. Many organisations are setting up groups or clubs to co-ordinate actions. For example, members of the Surface Engineering Association (SEA) and the Institute of Metal Finishing (IMF) can join a joint group.

There is a fear that some products will disappear since the cost of registration and evaluation may be prohibitive. We shall see. The HSE has now announced the publication of regulations regarding fees and charges payable to the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA)*.

Recently, Bill Callaghan, ended his term of office as Chairman** of the Health & Safety Commission (HSC) and was superseded by Chairwoman** Judith Hackett. Mr Callaghan was previously the Chief Economist and Head of the Economic and Social Affairs Department at the TUC. Ms Hackett is a chemical engineer and has been a Director in the Chemical Industry Association (CIA) for several years. I see hope in this.

‘Hope’ because the Health & Safety Executive may be diverted from its emphasis on what are often self-imposed human frailties such as ‘workplace’ stress, or their preoccupation with unstable gravestones in cemeteries, and concentrate on real workplace hazards.

Some of Ms Hackett’s early pronouncements have been quite interesting. When addressing IOSH in Scotland, she stated that “Health & safety work is a question of balance … Our role (as safety professionals) is not to eliminate all risk – the reality is that we actually enable a lot of potentially dangerous activities to take place by making people aware and helping them manage the risk so that people can get on with the job safely.”

She is also reported as having given a significant accolade to the British Coating Federation (BCF) when she congratulated the industry on its “sensible approach to health and safety …”. It is satisfying for once to see the HSE recognising the efforts that businesses make. Normally, government agencies don’t speak in such straightforward terms. They use awful PC words like ‘stakeholder’ - I always thought they meant people like Van Helsing, sharp stick in hand, looking to stop evil industrialists in their tracks.

It is worth taking a quick peek at the contribution the coating industry has made to safety, health and the environment. Just think of the pro-active way the vast majority of coatings manufacturers have dealt with difficult issues over the years. For example, VOC-free powder coatings replacing solvent based products; coating manufacturers who have unilaterally worked at replacing cadmium, lead and chromate based pigments; the sector is continually developing paints with ever-lower solvent content; and it has consistently promoted good product stewardship through clear guidance on training, labelling and safety data sheets. If I might be permitted to bask for one short paragraph in the reflected glory: Our coatings help to minimise pollution by protecting products from UV degradation, decay and corrosion, extending their working life. Cars no longer rust at an almost visible rate on the kerb and aircraft take off and land in safety. On a more personal level, the paint on my wooden garage doors is still intact after all these years.

Today I read that the Government had set up a new institution called the Risk and Regulation Advisory Council (RRAC) to counter increasing risk aversion in our country. It has apparently replaced the Better Regulation Commission which served much the same purpose. (I think it was Shakespeare who wrote “A nose by any other name would smell as well”.) Apparently, the RRAC will try to bring back commonsense. As an example, they will target what they describe as ‘defensive labelling’ such as on bags of peanuts stating that the product contains nuts!

I have checked carefully and it isn’t April 1st. When you think about it, it takes great ingenuity and imagination of Government to set up a body that makes regulations and then to create another one to balance its activities. I think that, unless they can do something about the way lawyers and judges actually interpret the law, they are on a loser.

Talking of job creation schemes, an Environment Agency (EA) officer explained an intricate piece of double-think the other day: Those sites where they directly oversee pollution controls will no longer have to receive a second EA group of MCERTS qualified specialists to check the results of the set of EA approved, MCERTS qualified specialists who first measured their emissions to atmosphere. Instead, there would only be a follow-up by an auditing team. MCERTS equipment and procedures are already subject to audit by the United Kingdom Accreditation Service (UKAS). Enough said.

Finally, I always thought it would be interesting one day to write anonymously, under a nom-de-plume. Perhaps those of you who are old enough will remember the Daily Mirror journalist in the 1960’s, William Connor, who wrote under the pseudonym ‘Cassandra’? In the Greek myths, Cassandra was given the power of true prophecy but doomed never to be believed. I rather fancied naming myself Laocoön. He was the Trojan who, when he saw that big wooden horse outside their gates, said “Beware Greeks bearing gifts”.

Nevertheless, I am confident of progress. But will that mean I have to stop being a pessimist forever? Will health & safety be different from now on? Or is it merely a wish; simply imagination; a colouring of the issues by my fevered brain?

* The REACH home page is http://www.hse.gov.uk/reach/index.htm and the fees and charges can be found on http://www.hse.gov.uk/reach/news.htm?ebul=hsegen/14-jan-2008&cr=10
** I’ve decided - as a matter of policy, that in future I will minimise my carbon footprint by avoiding generating garbage through ignoring the mealy-mouthed, political correctness of terms like ‘Chair’.

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