Source reduction, defined as chemical, equipment and process changes that intervene in an industrial process to eliminate or reduce hazards, has not figured as a front-line strategy for the protection of workers' health. Such initiatives are popular for environmental protection, but their feasibility and effectiveness as an industrial hygiene approach have not been well described.
We investigated four cases of source reduction as a hazard prevention strategy in Massachusetts companies that had used methylene chloride, an occupational carcinogen, for cleaning and adhesive thinning. Three cases were retrospective and one was prospective, where the researchers assisted with the source reduction process change. Data were collected using qualitative research methods, including in-depth interviews and site visits.
Motivated by environmental restrictions, a new worker health standard, and opportunity for productivity improvements, three companies eliminated their use of methylene chloride by utilizing available technologies and drop-in substitutes. Aided by technical assistance from the investigators, a fourth case dramatically reduced its use of methylene chloride via process and chemistry changes. While the companies' evaluations of potential work environment impacts of substitutes were not extensive, and in two cases new potential hazards were introduced, the overall impact of the source reduction strategy was deemed beneficial, both from a worker health and a production standpoint.
The findings from these four cases suggest that source reduction should be considered potentially feasible and effective for reducing or eliminating the potential hazards of methylene chloride exposure. Especially when faced with a hazard that is both an environmental and worker health concern, companies may chose to change their processes rather than rely on local exhaust ventilation equipment or personal protective equipment that might not be as effective, might transfer risk and/or not be integrated with financial goals. However, technical assistance sensitive to environmental and health and safety impacts as well as production issues should be provided to guide companies' source reduction efforts.