Safety and health are a top priority for tanners

Health and Safety are a top priority for tanners

You may have heard claims about the dangers of tanneries. Unsafe working conditions, dangerous toxins and chemicals, and manual handling risks are some of the terms that come up. But walk into a modern tannery, and you'll find a clean, state-of-the-art facility. That's because the health and safety of working conditions in modern tanneries are a top priority for tanners and subject to the same legislation as other businesses in their location.

The public image of a tannery
If you look up information about the working conditions, you are likely to find footage of tanneries in places with lax rules about worker safety. You also are likely to see the famous Chouara tannery in Morocco, often used to illustrate how bad things are. And yes, there are places that lack modern safety precautions. But let's debunk the most misleading image here: Chouara (and a few other traditional tanneries) remain open as tourist attractions, often described as vibrant, romantic, and exuding ancient craftsmanship (this traditional tannery was established in the 11th century). Morocco has plenty of modern tanneries.

It goes to show that these pictures don't represent modern tanneries, particularly not the automotive leather tanneries. These need to supply leathers that live up to the highest quality standards and are audited a lot by environmental custodians (like the Leather Working Group), original equipment manufacturers, but also governmental institutes and let's not forget their internal quality management teams. It comes as no surprise that most tanneries are close to obsession concerning process control and risk management. The leather industry is no different than other sectors when it comes to health & safety.  

Working towards occupational health & safety
In December 1979, representatives of 26 countries met to find solutions to improve the working conditions and working environment in the industry (Ebel, 1982). Specific guidelines were created, based on existing model codes from the International Labour Organization (ILO) and the World Health Organization (WHO) 1956. As an illustration, this document on industrial establishments states the following about tanning drums:

22. Paddle vats and revolving horizontal drums, used in the tanning of leather, shall be enclosed or guarded, and provided with interlocks and locking devices conforming to the requirements relating to tumbling barrels of paragraphs 97 to 99 of Regulation 91. (ILO, 1956, p. 68)

Today, we think of international standards as something completely natural. Yet, it took the emergence of the World Trade Organization (WTO) for these safety standards to be enforced in other parts of the world.

European standards and self-audits
Like any industry, leather production is subject to a variety of standards by which it must abide. One example is REACH (Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation, and Restriction of Chemicals). Not only does this legislation push for the removal of harmful chemicals, but it also employs various directives to protect workers from chemical agents. With chemical suppliers developing more eco-friendly and safe process chemicals and workers receiving full disclosure on substance use, the standard is already very high. EU standards keep moving forward, and you'll not see anyone working in risky sectors without prescribed safety measures, like ear protectors, gloves, safety glasses, masks, and safety garments.

Similarly, careful monitoring of processes, maintenance, and cleaning is now second nature to the process. The European Agency for Safety and Health at Work works closely with the industry sectors to assess and resolve risks for workers. A recent example concerns the use of carcinogenic and neurotoxic solvents in Spanish tanneries (EU-OSHA, 2018). An unprecedented level of transparency allows a single case to contribute to the general improvement of OiRA (Online Interactive Risk Assessment) tools for the sector (EU-OSHA, 2016).

But the extensive levels of cooperation within the leather sector and even initiatives with other industries have raised the bar higher with strict self-audits. The Leather Working Group rates tanneries primarily on their environmental standards, but this has become closely connected to workplace safety. Many industries have formed coalitions to improve conditions, and most European tanners have strict, self-imposed standards and comply with various ISO standards on good management.

The next step for the leather supply chain?
Automotive tanners already comply with extremely high standards, inherent to the product they create. Their modern facilities operate following the highest EU-set standards, and many of the riskier tasks are now automated. Chemicals are applied by computer-directed systems, through closed piping, to avoid health hazards. Transparency and traceability within the facility is part of risk assessments. Quality inspectors and R&D teams frequently make their way onto the factory floor to look for new opportunities to reduce waste, improve process efficiency and workplace safety. As the use of chemistry is more and more using safe, non-hazardous substances, this also contributes to safety levels and better protection for workers and the environment.

Yet, there are still opportunities. In the celebrated due diligence report of 2019, which pushed for OiRA implementation globally, COTANCE found a low level of awareness in many tanneries on workplace safety. European-run tanneries, who already abide by the current standards we consider best practices, could lead the way in this. Another point is an organized set of standards carried by the whole industry. Know The Chain reported various encouraging initiatives, but usually in small workgroups or supplier-manufacturer collaborations. Though this has provided flexibility in moving forward, a concerted effort could be the next big leap. There's always more to do, of which tanners are well aware. Safety and health in the workplace are a project that never ends.

  • Ebel, K. (1982) Occupational Safety and Health in the Leather and Leather Products Industry. United Nations Industrial Development Organization ID/WG. 386.2. Retrieved from: open.unido.org [Accessed 28 May 2020]
  • International Labour Organization (1956) Moral Code Of Safety Regulations For Industrial Establishments For The Guidance Of Governments And Industry. Retrieved from: ilo.org [Accessed 28 May 2020]
  • Corrigendum to Regulation (EC) No 1907/2006 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 18 December 2006 concerning the Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals (REACH). Retrieved from: eur-lex.europa.org [Accessed 28 May 2020]
  • EU-OSHA (2018) Case Study: Substitution of carcinogenic and neurotoxic solvents used in tanning. Retrieved from: osha.europa.eu. [Accessed 28 May 2020]
  • EU-OSHA (European Agency for Safety and Health at Work), 2016, ‘Leather and tanning’, OiRA tool. Available at: oiraproject.eu. [Accessed 28 May 2020]
  • Cotance (2019) Due Diligence For Healthy Workplaces in the Tanning Industry. Cotance. Retrieved from: euroleather.com [Accessed on: 20 March 2020].
  • Know The Chain (2017) How footwear companies and luxury brands tackle forced labor risks in their leather supply chains. Retrieved from: knowthechain.org [Accessed 28 May 2020]