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How climate change and legislation will change the industry
Wednesday, 28 February 2007 13:09

Now is the Witter of our discontent... Malcolm Griffiths looks at how climate change and legislation will change the industry.

Since joining the paint industry in 1963, Malcolm  has worked for several leading coating manufacturers. He is a graduate in chemistry, Fellow of the Institute of Metal Finishing and a Chartered Member of the Institute of Occupational Safety and Health. He now runs the independent coatings advisory service Ad Qual Castech.

This issue of Finishing has European Legislation as one of its main topics.  In my last article on coating film defects, I mentioned in passing that Foreign Secretary, Margaret Beckett, had suggested that anyone who disagrees with her views on the subject of climate change is no more than a terrorist.  Well, I disagree with her: not about whether climate change IS occurring but on the CAUSES of the changes and the ways of minimising its effects.  

I write as someone who has worked in the coatings industry for over 40 years, in health & safety for over 20 years and in the environmental field for 15 year, assisting companies to implement the increasing deluge of legislation heaped upon us.  In the early 60’s when I joined the industry - silly lad - the usual coating system consisted of three coats - primer, undercoat and finish. Now, similar components are more likely to be protected by a single coat. We have battled with the need to supply higher and higher solids for application at lower and lower film thicknesses. We have adapted products for application by ever more efficient means. Powder coatings and waterborne systems have replaced solvent based ones.  Just try calculating how much more volume the industry would supply, if we went back to those days.  Yet the worldwide usage of solvents has increased massively throughout that time.

Here in the UK, Environmental (the word could well be pronounced with a strong emphasis on “mental”) regulations are now being drafted in terms that require users of specified hazardous chemicals to set deadlines for their replacement with less hazardous ones. There is wide scope in the new Registration, Evaluation and Authorisation of Chemicals (REACH) Directive for an extension of that.   The HSE refer to ‘culture shock’ within our industry at the change – no wonder. Their claim is that trade and industry are consulted before hand, though just which of us agreed to those regulations is not certain.  But there are no politicians fighting industry’s corner either here or in Europe.

Of course, those who draft such legislation might mean well. I think that some consider it a new religion and are quite evangelical. Few are scientists, though some may understand the consequences of what they are doing and indeed wish self-destruction on the developed nations. Some of the more politically-aware may even see it as a means to meet their aims of changing the balance of power in the world.  

It will not necessarily be possible to replace all hazardous materials. In most cases, it is the very reactivity of a material that makes it useful to industry. But that does not worry these evangelists. Unfortunately, the Environment Agency has already mustered a vast number of such people from our universities - graduates in media studies, Greco-Roman history and recreational studies - to police the rules. In meetings, these people cannot even relate to the concept of increasing output.

It was reported recently that volatile organic compounds (VOC) do not contribute significantly to global warming.  They cause local pollution but their ‘greenhouse effect’ is negligible.  Interestingly, some regulations may yet force those companies still operating to install oxidising equipment, converting VOC to carbon dioxide which, as we know, is a primary cause of global warming.  Also, the need to convert to waterbased paints to comply with solvent emission limits or reduction schemes means that air drying finishes are increasingly replaced with those needing energy to cure.   

The additional costs of meeting the excessive safety, health and environmental legislation means that UK industry is usually priced out the game and the jobs are effectively exported to Far East countries.  We then end up importing Chinese machinery coated in Chinese paints and Thai electrical goods coated in Thai paints.  These countries use old technology with none of the restrictions that we face. Far from being a global solution, this makes matters worse, so the net effect is a massive increase in global pollution

The DTI are under the impression that all we have to do is to be more innovative!  If there is nothing to paint, we cannot supply. During the last 40 years, the surface coatings industry has been a leader in innovation. The very existence of industry in the UK is under fire.  In recent newspaper articles and radio programmes, it has been suggested that society will develop into a post-industrial phase; that we are turning into a knowledge-based society.  We should remind those people that most knowledge is acquired by experience. Although, at the moment, we can sell industrial consultancy and know-how overseas, based on our past history, how will the next generation learn, once our industry has gone?  What will UK Plc have to sell?

Even the UK’s future energy resources are jeopardised by the lunatic fringe.  The most practical method, nuclear power, may well be blocked by lobbyists who believe that we can survive on the magic of the wind and waves.  Other nations such as France have already upped production of nuclear power, ready to supply us - at a price - when we come to our senses.

It is sickening to see the misguided “Green” movement pressing for and - with successive and equally misguided governments in office - getting ever more swingeing rules to ruin our once-powerful nation. At every environmental conference someone stands up and insist that all paints should be waterbased.  Of course, they are not paint chemists; not even in manufacturing at all.  Often they are health and safety advisers, solicitors or perhaps just misnamed, lobbyist “Friends of the Earth”.

Against all that, I can see how and why health & safety law evolved.  However much the HSC have abused their brief, I can see that the Health & Safety at Work etc Act 1974 (HASAWA) was a beautifully crafted piece of legislation. Perhaps it was a little too broad in scope, allowing the lawyers in – but then you have to consider that a goodly number of those drafting and passing the laws are QCs – and what is wrong with a little closed shop; un petit cartel here and there – eh?

HASAWA did three things: it took politics out of the safety issues, it introduced a dedicated enforcement route outside of the police force and it gave a wide-ranging framework for managing risks.  However, is it really a good thing that some non-elected quango, nominated more by the political persuasion of the government of the day than by any idea of balance, is able to make decisions that affect everyone, regardless of cost?  The Institute of Directors suggests that complying with safety law costs UK industry £50 billion per year rather than the £15 billion suggested by the HSE.

Further more, we now have the European Union making equally simplistic rulings, which our UK bodies first ‘gold plate’ before implementation.  However unpalatable it may be and however much we distrust our politicians, political debate is the only way to moderate the more lunatic of ideas.  

Having contributed heavily to decimating most of those industries closely associated with heavy casualties such as mining, ship building and steel manufacture, and high rates of occupational disease such as in the chemical industry, the HSC and HSE were on the brink of putting themselves out of business until the job-creation gurus decided they could include common human ailments such as smoking, stress and manual handling injuries. I guess that obesity and driving will be next.

Are we all perhaps hypocritical about the regulations and guidance?  Whilst everyone wants protection, the vast majority of people think health & safety is a bit of a joke and seeing the some of the interpretations of laws and the decisions on prosecution, it is difficult not to agree.  Most people only quote it when they wish to mock it.  Eyes are raised to the ceiling at the excesses of risk aversion.  And after any accident, the HSE always have the final say on what THEY would have considered ‘reasonable’ or ‘practicable’.

Worse still, in the civil law courts, awards for the most outrageous amounts of compensation are reported.  If you ask people what they think of this, they say it is crazy. On the other hand, when lecturing on safety, one of the most common questions I am asked is about whether someone could perhaps sue over some perceived breech by their employer!  

Having got all that off my chest, it’s back to coatings in the next issue.