domenica, Luglio 14, 2024

UN principles on safe and healthy work as a fundamental right

In preparation to the fourty-second session of the Human Rights Council[1], taking place in Geneva from 9 to 27 of September 2019, UN Special Rapporteur on the implications for human rights of the environmentally sound management and disposal of hazardous substances and wastes, Baskut Tuncak, presented a set of principles to help States, businesses and other actors respect and protect workers from occupational exposure to toxic substances[2].

The principles, prepared in accordance to Human Rights Council resolution 36/15, are an expression of the commitment the Special Rapporteur made upon assuming mandate back in 2014 to give higher visibility to the situation of workers affected by exposure to toxic substances[3].

As UN Special Rapporteur points out, workers’ exposure to toxic chemicals, pesticides, radiation and other hazardous substances is particularly dangerous because it affects several core fundamental rights, such as the right to life, to health, to decent living conditions. It may also cause harms that are not visible in the short term, as negative health effects can take years or decades to manifest in workers and their families.

The fifteen principles elaborated by the UN Special Rapporteur are directed towards States and business as well, and are related to the duty to prevent exposure, to inform and to ensure effective remedies for those negatively affected by unsafe exposure to chemicals. Two principles in particular, if followed, can enhance the protection of workers from unsafe chemical exposure.

Principle 5 states that “duties and responsibilities to prevent the exposure of workers to toxic substances extend beyond borders”. This Principle is based on the acknowledgment that chemical-intensive industries and industrial processes, once located in industrialised countries, have increasingly moved to developing countries and economies in transition as a result of globalisation. Attracted by investment and the creation of more jobs, these countries, that often have lower levels and standards of workers’ protection and lack the capacity to enforce the appropriate safety measures, turn a blind eye on the exposure of workers to toxic substances. As recognised by the UN Special Rapporteur, this situation is tantamount a form of exploitation when appropriate measures are not taken to protect workers from toxic exposure[4].

As a result, Principle 5 reaffirms that States are obliged to prevent infringements of workers’ rights by business entities abroad over which they can exercise control, and also to require such business entities to act with due diligence to identify and prevent abuses by foreign subsidiaries, partners or suppliers. This Principle is necessarily linked with Principle 15, which affirms that States have an obligation to take steps to redress infringements of workers’ rights that take place outside of their territories but due to activities carried out by actors over which they exercise control[5]. Moreover, according to Principle 15 home States of these businesses should also ensure that their domestic legal system allows foreign workers to access remedies against such businesses[6]. This is all the more important for those workers whose legal systems and jurisdictions are unable to ensure effect remedies.

Principle 6 on the duty of States to “prevent third parties from distorting scientific evidence or manipulating processes to perpetuate exposure”, if implemented, is likely to have a significant positive effect on the evidence used by States when they adopt standards and policies related to the health and environmental effects of chemical exposure; by businesses when they adopt and implement safety measures on the workplace; as well as by workers when they need to assess when exposure to chemical substances on the workplace is unsafe.

This Principle aims to address the use of targeted campaigns to distort scientific evidence and hinder or delay the adoption of environmental and health-protective laws. Principle 6 is intimately linked to the right to information and freedom of expression. In the words of the UN Special Rapporteur, the obfuscation, manipulation and distortion of scientific evidence that impede the adoption of appropriate environmental and health laws “go beyond disrespect for human rights, seeking to perpetuate the exploitation of inequalities within and between societies”[7]. As a result, the perpetrators of such conduct should be held accountable by States, even through criminal sanctions if effective and appropriate[8].

The Human Rights Council has already adopted a Resolution endorsing the above-mentioned Principles, has called upon States to implement them and decide to continue addressing the matter[9].

Even though this set of Principles is not binding upon States or businesses, they provide a useful tool for them and other key actors in evaluating and assessing the measures they have put in place – or intend to put in place – to ensure that workers are not exposed to toxic substances on the workplace. In addition, these Principles, as the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights[10], are an instrument of soft law that has the potential to become the standard through which States and companies’ conduct towards the protection of workers from toxic exposure will be evaluated.

[1] Human Rights Council, “42nd session of the Human Rights Council (9-27 September 2019), available at

[2] United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner, “UN expert presents 15 principles to end workers’ exposure to toxic and hazardous substances”, available at

[3] UN Special Rapporteur on the implications for human rights of the environmentally sound management and disposal of hazardous substances and wastes, “Principles on human rights and the protection of workers from exposure to toxic substances”, para. 3, available at

[4] Id., para. 43.

[5] Id., para. 94.

[6] Id., para. 95.

[7] Id., para. 47.

[8] Id., para. 48.

[9] Human Rights Council, Resolution A/HRC/42/41, available at

[10] Human Rights Council, “Guiding principles on business and human rights”, available at

Selma Abdel-Qader

Laureata in Giurisprudenza all’Università di Bologna nel 2013 con 110 e lode con tesi in diritto internazionale, consegue nel 2016 doppio Master in Diritto Internazionale alla Facoltà di Legge dell’Università di Georgetown e in Politiche Ambientali alla Scuola di Affari Internazionali di Parigi - SciencesPo. Ha completato tirocini al Tribunale Speciale per il Libano a L’Aia, al Center for International Environmental Law a Washington D.C. e alla Commissione Europea a Bruxelles. Ha lavorato per due anni in quanto consulente per compagnie multinazionali, associazioni di imprese e organizzazioni non governative in una compagnia di public affairs e comunicazione a Brussels, specializzandosi in sostanze chimiche, economia circolare, sostenibilità, product design, settore tessile, commercio internazionale e diritti umani. È iscritta all'Ordine degli Avvocati di Bologna da Ottobre 2020 e, da gennaio 2021, all'Ordine degli Avvocati di Bruxelles in quanto avvocato stabilito. Lavora come Associate presso Fieldfisher LLP., a Bruxelles, nel dipartimento EU Regulatory, Competition and Trade, dove si occupa della legislazione europea in materia di sostanze chimiche, prodotti fitosanitari, legislazione sul prodotto e dispositivi medici.

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