In September 2019, the Special Rapporteur on human rights and toxics presented a report (A/HRC/42/41) to the UN Human Rights Council, with fifteen principles to better protect workers from the exposures and to provide remedies for violations of workers’ rights. The principles are based on existing international human rights law, the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, several ILO instruments, and relevant international agreements on toxic chemicals and waste. These principles are the result of comments and suggestions received through written submissions; consultations with States, international organizations, civil society, and other stakeholders; and twenty-five years of research and analysis through the “toxics” mandates’ country visits, thematic reports, and communications with States and non-State actors.
Seven of the principles in the report concern the prevention of exposure to hazardous substances. Everyone must be protected from exposure to toxic substances at work. States have a duty to prevent exposure and businesses a responsibility to prevent exposure in realizing the human right to safe and healthy work. Protecting workers from exposure to toxic substances has a ripple effect – it also protects their families, their communities and the environment. In exercising these duties and responsibilities, hazard elimination is paramount, and so too is the protecting the integrity of the science on which decisions are made.
In particular, with respect to industrial accident prevention, and preparedness and response, Principle 2 – States have a duty to protect the human rights of workers through the prevention of exposure to toxic substances may be of use. This Principle provides that every State has an obligation to adopt measures to prevent occupational exposure to toxic substances. Pursuant to their duty to protect the right to life, States are also required to take special measures of protection towards persons in vulnerable situations whose lives have been placed at particular risk because of specific threats, such as workers. (para 29) Prevention of exposure requires deliberate action by States. States must do everything in their power to protect all workers in their territory and/or jurisdiction from occupational exposures to toxic substances. States must take appropriate steps to prevent, investigate, punish and provide redress for cases of occupational exposures to toxic and otherwise hazardous substances through effective policies, legislation, regulation and enforcement, as well as adjudication. (para 31)
With respect to decisions on the siting of hazardous industrial/chemical facilities, Principle 7 – Protecting workers from exposure to toxic substances protects their families, their communities and the environment, may be useful. This Principle provides that when a worker is exposed to a toxic workplace, the consequences of such exposure stretch far beyond their well-being and violations of their rights. The physical and mental consequences of such exposure are also borne by their families and generally lead to a toxic environment for their communities. Workers engaged in highly toxic livelihoods often work very close to their homes and communities, sometimes accompanied or helped by their children. (para 49). Protecting workers from toxic exposures has broader benefits for society. Potential synergies can be realized through stronger cooperation between labour and environmental health efforts at all levels of governance. (para 50)
Principles 8, 9 10 and 11 concern the interrelationship between the human right to safe and healthy work, with rights to information, participation, and assembly. The right to safe and healthy work is inseparable from freedom of association, the right to organize and the right to collective bargaining. Fundamental to the worker's rights is information. Every worker has a right to know, and to know their rights. Health and safety information about toxic substances must never be confidential.
The final four principles seek to help address this injustice. Workers, their families and their communities must have immediate access to an appropriate and effective remedy, which should be available from the time of exposure. Depriving workers of their right to safe and healthy work should be a crime. Workers or their families should not bear the burden of proving the cause of their illness or disability to access an effective remedy.