Minister attacks new chemical safety plan

Environment minister Michael Meacher has attacked Responsible Care, the chemical industry’s health, safety and environmental performance programme, for a lack of targets, timescales or commitment to openness by firms. Speaking at the re-launch of the 10-year-old programme, Meacher said: `I endorse the guiding principles, but they need to be backed up by targets and timescales. […]

Environment minister Michael Meacher has attacked Responsible Care, the chemical industry’s health, safety and environmental performance programme, for a lack of targets, timescales or commitment to openness by firms.

Speaking at the re-launch of the 10-year-old programme, Meacher said: `I endorse the guiding principles, but they need to be backed up by targets and timescales. I am disappointed by today’s Responsible Care guidelines. They should involve all stakeholders. Openness must come.’

The public should have access to the risk assessments companies are obliged to submit on the safety of their sites, he said. `That is the only way the industry can regain public trust.’

The Chemical Industries Association (CIA), which launched Responsible Care in the wake of the 1974 Flixborough chemical plant explosion, rebutted Meacher’s charges. It said that a principle of the Responsible Care programme is `stakeholder engagement’, which means talking to the public about what the industry is doing.

`Over 160,000 people accepted our invitation to our two national open day programmes in 1994 and 1998,’ said Judith Hackitt, the CIA’s business and environment director. `Open days are now in the culture of the chemical industry.’

The new guidelines also include a commitment to continuous improvement. Since the start of Responsible Care, the odds of an employee having time off work for an accident on a chemical site at some time in their working life has fallen to one in five, making the industry one of the safest in the UK, Hackitt said.

Emissions of the most toxic materials – Red List substances – have fallen 95%, and energy efficiency has improved by 14% since 1990, she added.

* Michael Meacher has commissioned a one-year study into the health risks of PVC and possible alternative materials. There are concerns about the environmental impact of PVC manufacture and disposal, and health fears over additives such as phthalate softeners.

The British Plastics Federation welcomed the move. `PVC has been investigated,’ a spokesman said, `but not its alternatives.’