Cátedra del Olmo set up a women's association, Hacia el Futuro (Towards the future) in the town of la Pascuala, Samaná region, Dominican Republic in 2008. The group started a cooperative to produce cleaning products, cooking them up on a small wood stove to begin with, and marketing them to local businesses including hotels, offices and hospitals. The income gave the women, most of them single parents, enough to feed their families.

Many women in the Dominican Republic start a business at home to try to escape poverty. Female unemployment in the country stands at 20%, almost double the rate for men. In addition, one job in two is in the informal economy. However, as Del Olmo discovered, her business carried unknown hazards: "We didn’t know much about the products we were using, or their effects on our health or the environment. More importantly, even when the label warned us about the effects of an individual product, we had no idea about the effects of the products when combined.”

This is a common challenge in workplaces. Although chemical substances are recognised as a significant workplace risk factor, the Dominican Republic has no specific provisions on the issue in health and safety at work regulations.

Sustainlabour, an international organisation that works with trade unions on chemical risk prevention, organised a capacity-building project in the Dominican Republic, funded by the Quick Start Programme (QSP). Through the project, it joined forces with the major trade unions, to which Del Olmo’s cooperative is affiliated, and held training sessions and workshops.

The project supplied protective equipment for waste pickers, distributed leaflets to farm workers about the impact of pesticides, and held a national conference with stakeholders from labour, industry, health and environmental backgrounds.

Del Olmo was one of more than 400 workers who received training in identifying substances, toxicity and risk prevention. Additionally, and most importantly, they reviewed their own production processes and discovered not only that they were handling toxic substances, but also about safer alternatives.

Since the training sessions, Del Olmo and the women of Hacia el Futuro have been developing cleaner production processes and are on course to obtain official certification for Green Purchases from the Dominican government. This should open their products to a wider market and increase revenue. They have also implemented a project supported by the National Biotechnology Innovation Institute (IIBI) to improve cleaning product components and have substituted hazardous substances with environmentally sound alternatives. They signed an agreement with the Ministry of Industry and Commerce to become state providers.

Safer – and cheaper – alternatives

Metalworker Ariel Acevedo, 39, also took part in the Sustainlabour training. A trade union representative for 15 years, he works for Metaldom, a large factory in Dominican capital Santo Domingo, which employs 1,423 workers.

“I have always been committed to negotiating better working conditions for my fellow workers. However, I have to admit that I put all my energy into negotiating pay and working times, rather than into occupational health or environmental issues.”

The training sessions helped Acevedo discover that the drill lubricant (taladrina) used in the factory’s machines was a potential toxic. Using advice from the project team he suggested that the company use a safer product: pig-fat.

“Pig-fat is less toxic and 75% cheaper, so it also an economic benefit for the company”, he says. His training was the springboard for raising awareness across the company on chemical risk.

“All workers have now received basic learning on labels and chemical risks. I am surprised at how much we can do to improve workers’ health and the environment”.

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