Industrial worker          

A worker is generally understood as someone who is employed under the terms of a formal or informal contract. However, the term will be used here in a narrower sense, to refer to someone involved in the industrial production of goods and/or the provision of services.

The period known as the Industrial Revolution, from around 1760 to 1840, saw the transition from hand-based to machine-based production. The introduction of new manufacturing processes had profound social impacts: people who were no longer able to make a living from the land poured into the cities to seek employment in the newly built factories. The increased use of steam power, new chemical manufacturing and iron production processes, the improved efficiency of water power and the development of machine tools also led to a dramatic shift away from wood and other bio-fuels towards coal.

The intensive and widespread use of machinery led to an explosion in the availability of fabrics, vehicles and labour-saving devices. Living standards for the newly created middle class and the well-off factory owners rose to unprecedented heights, while the working poor lived in squalid conditions in the burgeoning urban slums. With advances in technology, workers now enjoy better conditions than a century ago, although industrial pollution and worker safety remain a significant concern.

Industrial workers today typically belong to teams that include specialists at different levels: managers, engineers, labourers, machine operators, researchers and support staff. Ideally, each team should have the capacity to make complex decisions and undertake measures in relation to environmental protection and human health.

Every type of manufacturing industry consumes energy and raw materials, and the environmental impacts of industrial activities are greater if the materials used are non-renewable. Different industrial activities affect the environment in different ways, as described below.

Chemicals industry
Production processes:
  • carry the risk of explosions, fires and spills of hazardous substances into water bodies;
  • may result in emissions of particulate matter, sulphur dioxide (SO2), nitrogen oxide (NOx), carbon monoxide (CO), volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and other organic chemicals, depending on the methods used and the end product;
  • consume water for processing and cooling;
  • affect water quality by releasing organic compounds, heavy metals (cadmium, mercury), suspended solids, organic matter, phenols and cyanide;
  • produce waste that contaminates soil; and
  • create waste disposal problems.

Paper and pulp production

Environmental hazards include:
  • emissions of SO2, NOx, mercaptans, chlorine compounds and dioxins into the atmosphere; and
  • the release of suspended solids, organic matter, chlorinated organic compounds and toxins into water bodies.

Cement, glass and ceramics production
Industrial facilities:
  • pollute the air with dust, chromium, lead, arsenic, SO2, vanadium, hydrogen fluoride, soda ash, potash, silica and fluorine compounds;
  • contaminates processing water with oils and heavy metals;
  • requires the extraction of raw materials; and
  • releases metals that cause soil contamination and waste-disposal problems.

Iron and steel industry
Manufacturing processes:
  • release a wide range of pollutants;
  • may result in emissions of ultraviolet and infrared radiation, as well as ionising radiation, from heat sources or heated materials;
  • carry the risk of explosions and fires; and
  • consume water and affect water quality by emitting organic matter, tars and oils, suspended solids, metals, benzene, phenols, acids, sulphides, sulphates, ammonia, cyanide, fluoride, lead and zinc.

Non-ferrous metallurgical industry
The production of non-ferrous metals:
  • results in emissions of particulate matter, SO2, NOx and lead; and
  • contaminates scrubber water with heavy metals.

The process units in refining plants:
  • release emissions of hazardous gases, such as sulphur and NOx, hydrogen sulphide (H2S), hydrocarbons, benzene, CO, carbon dioxide (CO2), particular matter, toxic organic compounds and odours;
  • are vulnerable to the risk of explosions and fires;
  • take in water for cooling and return it to its source at a higher temperature, causing thermal pollution that decreases oxygen and affects ecosystems; and
  • release hydrocarbons, mercaptans, caustic substances, oil, phenols, chromium and effluents from gas scrubbers.

Leather tanning techniques:
  • produce emissions of dust, H2S, CO2 and chromium compounds; and
  • release effluents containing suspended solids, sulphates and chromium.

Food industry
The production of foods and beverages:
  • depends directly on the natural environment for the supply of raw materials; and
  • involves extensive processing that has a considerable potential impact on the environment.
Each team working in an industrial plant can play a proactive role in its development by:
  • promoting and implementing innovative technologies and practices that optimise the use of materials and energy;
  • understanding and complying with environmental laws and regulations, based on the guidance provided by industrial and governmental tools and technical assistance;
  • demonstrating environmental stewardship — from the way that workers manage their operations and the products and services they offer, to the projects and activities they support in their communities;
  • preventing pollution in the workplace and raising awareness of health and safety issues;
  • responding appropriately to natural disasters and weather-related emergencies, including anticipatory countermeasures to help reduce clean-up costs and the risk of contamination; and
  • generating grants to promote projects such as scientific studies or community clean-up efforts.

Concrete environmental protection measures might include:
  • implementing activities to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in a cost-effective way;
  • incorporating programmes that encourage the efficient use of electric power, gas and chemicals and cut wastewater disposal costs while at the same time conveying a positive image of environmental stewardship to employees, customers and the general public;
  • developing a toxics release inventory (TRI), a database on chemical releases and waste management activities undertaken by the company;
  • applying chemical assessment tools and expertise to create safer and more efficient chemical processes and technologies;
  • initiating and supporting waste recycling activities, including the start-up or expansion of recycling businesses; and 
  • taking part in national and international initiatives aimed at reducing or eliminating pollution at its source.