I work in an R&D institute, where my daily work involves algorithm development, system integration and optics. I am basically all day in front of a computer, with some trips to the lab for some experiments and/or soldering electronic prototypes. I'm European, but people in my host country speak Chinese (not China). I can speak some Chinese but my skills are limited.
I was recently assigned what sounded like a nice project: measure the weight variation of recycled gravel heaps. I have seen photos of the worksite, there's gravel heaps all right, nothing to worry about.
After some brainstorming, I proposed a solution, did some simulations, boss accepted my approach, and I started coding.
I am then asked to join a trip to the worksite: my boss, two colleagues and me. What immediately struck me upon arriving was the amount of dust and the heavy odors of hydrocarbons vapors emanating from the heating of asphalt transported on big conveyor belts, just over our heads. We were wearing simple masks, COVID19 style, and no one had mentioned anything about any safety issue. Well, my boss had said it was safe there. We stayed 2 hours on site, I took some of the gravel in my hands to document their sizes, sampled some in plastic bags to measure their density and, back to the office, pursued the development of the whole system.
I then learned more about those "gravels": they are in fact slag, remains of iron smelting, provided by the biggest steel maker of the country. I've discovered that the (Chinese) word "slag" has bad reputation in that country, so it was renamed to what could be translated into the neutral and in appearance inoffensive "recycled gravels". But slag contains nonetheless heavy metals, sulfur and other nasty chemicals.
My boss said from the beginning the site and material were safe. I asked for a test report 3 months ago, again today, he has yet to provide it. Particulate matters from slag is a health hazard (see eg this article, there's many other, and in fact it's just common sense: PM2.5 is a health hazard, and so is a fortiori PM2.5 with heavy metal). I have informed my boss and the 2 colleagues who work with me about the dangers of slag airborne particulate matters, but none seem to have taken my warnings seriously. I've requested the purchase of proper respiratory masks, request accepted, but that was before I know all I know now about the health hazards caused by slag.
Here are my problems.
- Now I don't want to go back to that place, that's clear in my mind, I haven't yet notified my boss.
- My boss still plans a trip for the end of this month, undisturbed by the slag dust nor influenced in any way by my warnings, he wants to stick to his schedule
- I have further warned my colleagues privately, showed them articles from the local news about the health hazards of slag, had masks bought for them, but I feel they may think I give up on them if I don't go on-site to install the system (which I have developed myself).
- I am particularly unhappy (there's a compound word for this, starting with pi followed by 2 s ... and 2 f at the end) to have been duped about the safety of the material
- I don't know how to best communicate about the situation and to whom (safety department of the institute, my boss - seems useless; HR...?)
- Besides a good American fellow also working in my institute, I have zero support there: colleagues bow low to the boss (as is the case for most people in that country) and the two ones involved in the project seem to start thinking that I am a trouble maker, preventing the project from advancing (remains the on-site installation and testing).
How would you recommend I proceed? Any guidance, any piece of advice can be helpful.
Author "Fattie" in this answer provides some inspiring wording, though for a different situation.
Edit: details and addressing some comments.
- My host country is not a third world country (a famous semiconductor manufacturer is located here, if you want a clue about the location).
- a colleague provided a website showing that the company for which I develop the system has been fined several time for non compliance with the local air-pollution act.
- Paul, Justin: I am still trying to understand if there's any violation of any safety rules. The safety department of my institute is rather strict: any outside company coming to work here must attend safety trainings; but it seems there's a void in terms of us employees going to work outside: in this case it's the responsibility of the host company to provide safety guidelines (non existent for our case). Our institute follows the government's rules; which clearly says that the safety of work location must be evaluated and proper protection be provided.
- Joe, Joseph: yes, this option is on the table...
- I asked again my boss to provide the analysis report he had mentioned, this time during a department meeting (10 colleagues attending). In response, he sent a web page from the steel manufacturing company which produces the slag, with basic information about slag. One can read there that... slag is very safe! (They sell the stuff and its part of their business, would they have written it isn't safe?). Conclusion: the analysis report he promised many times seems nonexistent.
- a colleague (local guy) explained about the nastiness of slag dust and recommended not only a mask but also proper clothing and googles: slag dust can reach extremely small sizes, making it absorbed even by skin. He gave me the name of a person working at our safety department.
- I will explain and expose the situation to our safety department and we'll see what comes out of it.
Many thanks to all of you. From feeling isolated, I have gained confidence that the situation can be dealt with serenely (it may not be easy though).