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Organophosphates – a threat to employees' health?

This was the question posed when 35 representatives of employers and employees, affected organizations, research communities and the authorities met for a round table conference in the NPD on 3 June.

From left: Uno Abrahamsen
of the Directorate of Labour
Inspection (DAT), Halvor
Erikstein of the Federation
of Oil Workers' Trade Union
(OFS) and Sigvart Zacha-
riassen of the Norwegian
Petroleum Directorate
The background for the conference is the suspicion of serious health effects linked to the use and handling of organophosphates which are found in hydraulic and tubine oils, among other things.

The issue has been raised in ">the Safety Forum, and much media attention has been given to the issue of late. Occupational hygienist Halvor Erikstein in the Federation of Oil Workers' Trade Union (OFS) has been a key driver and provider of information on this issue.

The conference came about on an initiative made by the Norwegian Petroleum Directorate (NPD) and the Directorate of Labour Inspection (DAT), with professional assistance from the National Institute of Occupational Health (STAMI).

"We wanted to bring all of the involved parties together to review the status of this matter and to discuss further follow-up, both by the authorities and the industry, but also by the research communities. We believe it is important that we create a common, early understanding of the complexities of the issue, and that this can be the foundation for good relations and good processes in the continued work," says principal engineer Sigvart Zachariassen in the Norwegian Petroleum Directorate.

Zachariassen took the initiative for and led the conference, together with section head Uno Abrahamsen in DAT.

How did a group composed of such a wide range of personnel and expertise function?
"There was an open and constructive dialogue among the participants, and a lot of input was given that can be used in the follow-up work. It was my impression that all of the participants had the opportunity to promote their viewpoints in an open and receptive atmosphere," says Zachariassen.

What issues were discussed and did the conference result in any recommendations?
"First of all, everyone agreed to keep the focus on short-term measures linked to safe handling of organophosphates, and to identify the best practice for handling products that contain this type of additives.

The participants were also concerned with ensuring that individuals who suspect that exposure to organophosphates may have affected their health receive a qualified and preferably standardized medical examination.

In cooperation with the newspaper, Dagbladet, the Norwegian Association for Work-Related Injuries has prepared a list of about 200 persons who have such suspicions.

STAMI will prepare guidelines for this type of examination in cooperation with the occupational medicine milieus. The research communities will benefit greatly from utilizing the information from this group to illuminate potential connections between organophosphates and health damage.

There was also agreement that particular attention must be paid to the design and improvement of equipment with hydraulic systems. Good examples were given of the development of new, closed systems for testing liquids, which can otherwise represent significant exposure.

The need for development of personal protective gear that is both safe and user-friendly was also highlighted."

Who has the main responsibility for bringing about such processes?
"The employer is responsible for ensuring that the employees have a safe working environment and that their health is protected against hazards associated with chemicals in the working environment. This is clearly described in both the Working Environment Act and in the Chemical Regulations.

This issue illustrates that the companies must improve their systems for risk assessment and management of chemicals in the activities. There are indications that the level of detail in existing systems is not sufficient to avoid problems such as we now see with organophosphates."

What role did the industry play in the conference?
"The industry was represented at the conference, but participation was not as broad as we had hoped. Obviously, this is unfortunate on the basis of the responsibility they have under the regulations.

However, we expect that they will be active contributors, not just as regards short-term measures to ensure proper work practices, but also as regards more long-term research efforts.

Experience also shows that industry initiatives in this area trigger government funding."

Minister Victor Norman has spoken out to the press and promised action. What about the role of the authorities in the continued work?
"The Ministry of Labour and Government Administration (AAD) was represented at the conference and both AT and NPD will have a close cooperation with the Ministry on this issue, and will also act as advisors to the Ministry.

We have the clear perception that the Ministry has placed this item high on its agenda and that they will be actively following up this issue.

Moreover, the authorities have dual roles as both driving forces and supervisors in the continued work.

This means that we will safeguard the long-term focus by being driving forces for research and assessment activities, but we will also follow up problem areas through our continuous supervision of health, environment and safety in the industry, both on land and offshore.

It is natural that the authorities will continue to involve the parties in a continuation of this work. As regards the petroleum industry, the Safety Forum will continue to be a central arena for follow-up.

It would be natural to expect that the developments in this issue will be reflected in the next Storting White Paper on HES in the petroleum industry, which will be released in 2005.

How do you view the further involvement of the research communities in this matter?
There was agreement at the conference, which was attended by representatives of the most prestigious professional communities in the area, that the general research community in Norway is small enough for us to seek to identify the resources in the various milieus in order to achieve a collaboration in this area.

The conference also extended a clear invitation to the research communities to make proposals for projects. In this context, we hope that AAD will also stimulate efforts within the framework of the funds that have already been allocated to HES research with a basis in Storting White Paper No. 7 on HES in the petroleum activities.

The problems surrounding organophosphates were raised by the employees. Do you feel that these representatives were heard at the conference?
Yes, it is my clear impression that they were heard. There also received a good response from the other participants, and were praised for taking the initiative on this issue," says Zachariassen.

Contact in the NPD:
Sigvart Zachariassen