Fonterra clamp on lab dangers

JOHN ANTHONY
Last updated 05:00 08/06/2012

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Fonterra has tightened procedures after discovering almost 100 laboratory workers at its Whareroa plant were exposed to the chemical phenol without being properly informed about the dangers they faced.

An internal safety review uncovered the loophole around phenol, or carbolic acid, which can be a health risk to unborn children.

The review found a high proportion of lab workers were women of child-bearing age.

Fonterra chief technology officer Jeremy Hill said phenol had been used for decades as a testing agent within the laboratory environment to confirm the composition of certain dairy products to meet national and international standards.

The chemical, used to produce an antibacterial component of carbolic soap for many years, is today widely used in the plastics industry and as a component of paint strippers, glues, polyurethane and many other products, including cosmetics, Dr Hill said.

The company's health and safety committee found the lab's safety data sheets and induction manual the company provided did not raise sufficient awareness among staff of potential hazards in the workplace.

The company now says its safety standards exceed the required standards.

The team was recognised for the discovery by being named as a finalist in the Department of Labour-sponsored Safeguard award for "best initiative to address a health hazard".

Phenol and its vapours are said to be corrosive to the eyes, skin, and respiratory tract and may cause harmful effects on the central nervous system, heart and kidneys.

Mr Hill said a range of chemicals were used in small quantities in certain Fonterra lab testing procedures.

"Fonterra is always looking to minimise their use," Mr Hill said.

"In May 2011 our Whareroa lab initiated a project to go over-and-above the existing stringent safety standards and procedures for handling these materials with their own additional programme to promote safe labelling and usage," he said.

This included an emphasis on protecting the health of any mothers-to-be who work in the laboratory, he said.

"We handle materials all the time that require the use of appropriate safety procedures," Mr Hill said.

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