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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...

Updates:

  • 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.

Thanks

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).

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    Is any of it actually in violation of job safety regulation in wherever you are? Or is it just down to your standard of unsafe?
    – Aida Paul
    Commented Jun 7, 2023 at 16:01
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    A lot depends on the attitudes towards worker safety in your host country and at the institute where you work. In the US or Europe, there would be a whole host of government and institute health and safety offices that would be very happy to intervene. In a lot of developing countries, this sort of setup would be utterly unproblematic. And a lot depends on exactly what you want the result to be. Getting agreement that you personally don't have to return, for example, is vastly easier than, say, completely shutting down the site or installing European level safety equipment. Commented Jun 7, 2023 at 16:07
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    I GOT CITED ! ;) calocedrus, as others have wisely said it's probably realistically a case where you should move on to another job. Unfortunately, ultimately national laws don't keepo you safe, you keep you safe. Just BTW as often mentioned on this site, long questions just generally tend to get less readership.
    – Fattie
    Commented Jun 8, 2023 at 12:35
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    The linked article doesn't mention any health hazards from slag. Just that there may be levels of slag dust in the air that may be a health hazard, but no explicit indication of what these levels or hazards might be. Given that plenty of people shovel slag around for 60+ hours per week for years on end, it seems unlikely that an afternoon at the slag storage once every few months poses a serious health hazard. In fact, a quick google search shows no health hazards other than mild irritation of the skin and eyes. Again keeping in mind that you are not chronically exposed to slag dust.
    – user140162
    Commented Jun 8, 2023 at 15:46
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    Is Taiwan now a taboo word? Commented Jun 9, 2023 at 13:48

3 Answers 3

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  1. Be clear about your own goals: what exactly do you want? Keep yourself safe? Keep others safe? Change the behavior of your company? Change the culture in your host country? Get revenge on being lied to? These are all very different goals with very different approaches and chances for success.
  2. Read up on legal labor requirements. In most countries these will specify what work safety measures are required, what protection must be made available, exposure time and levels, etc. Also research whether these are typically followed and/or enforced (which varies a lot by country and culture)
  3. Plot a strategy based on 1 and 2 and execute it.

Assuming that your main goal is your own safety, simply figure out what protective equipment you need and ask for it. If your ask is supported by local labor rules, you can use this a an added argument. Chances are, you will get it. If not, you can choose to buy it yourself or refuse to go altogether. The latter won't help your career there, but this may not be a problem at this point anyway.

I am particularly unhappy to have been duped about the safety of the material

I don't think you were duped. Your boss has apparently no problems going to the worksite themselves. That is a strong indicator, that they personally think it's safe and not much of a safety problem. They may be wrong in their assumption, but it looks like they truly believe it's not a big deal. So chances are you are not being intentionally lied to, they just think you are making a mountain of a mole hill.

I would also recommend approaching your research with an open eye. A casual Google search on "protective gear for handling steel slag" didn't raise any red flags for me (but I'm not an expert). Suggested protection was pretty mild (googles, mask, boots, etc.) and these are for people who handle this stuff 8 hours/day and not just once every two months.

If you want to keep working there, you will have to make peace with the situation. If you fundamentally believe that using steel slag as a construction material is morally or ethically wrong, you should look for a different employer that doesn't work with it.

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    Hilmar, you ask the right questions (which were also floating in my mind), I need to sort answers to these question in order of importance. About the fact to have been duped: clearly the actual nature of the material has been hidden; as well as the air pollution risks encountered at the site (a colleague just sent me a website showing that the company managing the worksite has been fined several time for non-compliance with environment rules); he also still hasn't provide the test report I have asked. I know the guy well, dupery is one of his skills.
    – calocedrus
    Commented Jun 8, 2023 at 1:03
  • "making a mountain of a mole hill": it would more like the mole hill hides a vast gallery of tunnels used by people seeking to circumvent the rules. What I'm discovering are conflicts of interests, political connections to the government, and more. It just stinks.
    – calocedrus
    Commented Jun 8, 2023 at 4:39
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    "That is a strong indicator, that they personally think it's safe and not much of a safety problem." Just because someone thinks something is safe doesn't make it safe. I've seen plenty of people do really stupid things in industrial environments and feel OK because they got away without any issue.
    – Peter M
    Commented Jun 8, 2023 at 12:48
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    @PeterM Sure, this isn't an argument that the environment is safe, only that the boss thinks it's safe. This helps to untangle what you're worried about -- there can still be a safety issue, but less of a dishonesty issue (at least in this instance, OP may have other concerns about dishonesty). Commented Jun 8, 2023 at 13:11
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    @RichardRast yes, I did take this aspect into account, and gave my boss the benefits of the doubt. That was until I asked him again for the analysis report of the slag we deal with. See the update in my post: there are strong indications at this point that he mentioned a nonexistent report. Now, to his credit, he may have himself been duped by others! But his absence of caution with regards to safety is a professional mistake, albeit maybe here, minor.
    – calocedrus
    Commented Jun 9, 2023 at 0:41
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I'm no expert, but I haven't heard of steel smelting residues being particularly harmful - once they have ceased to be molten.

Heavy metals and sulphur are not harmful as bulk solids. "Asphalt vapours" are not harmful.

It's also not clear how often you will have to visit the site. If it's once a blue moon for a few hours on site, then there's a possibility you're being unreasonable, if you've already been granted masks and gloves.

Certainly, anything they put down on public roads in a Western country, will not be harmful at fleeting contact. It may be different if you were in the Ivory Coast.

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    The heavy metals in the slag (in the form of bulk solid) is indeed likely to be safe, the problem is with the airborne dust from the slag. Not Ivory Coast (I don't think people speak Chinese there :-) )
    – calocedrus
    Commented Jun 8, 2023 at 0:54
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    Do you ever eat cooked food? Cooking releases levels of "particulate air pollution" (by that metric) much higher than the levels you see cited as hazardous.
    – fectin
    Commented Jun 8, 2023 at 11:56
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    @fectin: Cooking food does not release heavy metals in its particulate air pollution.
    – Joshua
    Commented Jun 8, 2023 at 14:22
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    @Joshua, at least, ideally not!
    – Steve
    Commented Jun 8, 2023 at 15:45
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    "Asphalt vapours are not harfmful" - I wouldn't be so sure, osha.gov/asphalt-fumes/hazards has resources that expands on "Exposure to asphalt fumes can cause serious injury and permanent damage". Also, on "Certainly, anything they put down on public roads in a Western country, will not be harmful at fleeting contact" - more likely "anything that brings profit will be abused regardless of health issues in a Western country". You've heard about cigarettes, yes? Turned out they aren't good for your health. Commented Jun 9, 2023 at 0:03
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TL;DR : Put it in writing and make them sign it.

For context, I'm from EU and do not work in your industry.

However, we do have this interesting rule that any higher education must include a course on civil protection - basic disaster prevention/response knowledge, and that included basic worker rights too.

The expert told us a titbit that initially seemed excessive but opened my eyes. She explained, that if your employer tells you to pick up that ladder and change the lightbulb, ask them to put that request in writing. Mind you, we're a bunch of CS majors, so that certainly wouldn't have been in our job description. The reason was that if by any chance you, for an example, fall - the employer would bear no responsibility. They can claim you climbed the ladder on your own accord and it would be your word against theirs. You couldn't request for compensation because while the accident happened on work premises and at work hours, it is your own fault.

Now, obviously, I am not aware of the exact laws of your country or the contents of your contract. However, I know people happily disregard safety regulations until they have to put into writing that that's what they're doing. Do you think it would be possible for you to compose a document along the lines :

"I, the boss Such nSuch, have been informed that the material contains x,y,z that has x1,y1,z1 consequences on human health and I request employee Calocedrus to handle it using the following protection gear: N95 respiratory masks. I am aware I have been requested to provide protective gear x2,y2,z2 which I have not done and bear all responsibility for the consequences on Calocedrus' health."

If he really believes your concerns are excessive there will be no excuse not to sign it, right? Mind you, if he's a real slick nasty person knowledgable of the locals laws, maybe somehow such a document could be invalid and then he might sign stuff willy nilly. But my hope would be this would simply make him stop and take the time to assess the concerns.

Best of luck and if all else fails I hope you have the option to leave. We can't buy back health.

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  • "Put it in writing" is the key. Here spoken words are too often forgotten, biased, modified. Once written, it stays as it is. Now I may not have my boss to sign a document saying he let us go unprotected to the site, I have enough proofs about this. But I keep record of his words, ex. him promising and not delivering the analysis report.
    – calocedrus
    Commented Jun 8, 2023 at 15:49
  • Right, I see how requesting to sign documents comes across as too much. Creating a paper trail certainly is the key. I would just make sure to send emails with the requests for the report and gear. Emails are timestamped, it's normal that they are saved (vs screenshotting a messaging app such as Slack), they're uniquely identifiable (only this person should have access to it), it's fair to assume a lack of response is a response if this is actively used email. And it wouldn't be unusual the repeat a request over email either.
    – vspmis
    Commented Jun 9, 2023 at 11:26
  • But "your employer": But only in academia? Normally, the employer bears most responsibility by default (and thus has an incentive to develop a strong safety culture). Commented Jun 9, 2023 at 13:55
  • @PeterMortensen No, not only academia. Point was that any tasks not reasonably within your job description can be deemed as your own random initiative. Technically, it makes sense an employer doesn't bear responsibility if you suddenly decide to dig out a ladder and climb it in the middle of the day if you're just an accountant.
    – vspmis
    Commented Jun 10, 2023 at 15:09

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