Potentially hazardous chemicals are tools of the trade in tens of thousands of businesses, but most companies treat that fact as a dirty little secret. That attitude may be riskier than the chemicals themselves. If a problem ever does arise, a company can be torn apart by fear, confusion, and anger, based largely on public ignorance.

For that reason, a growing number of companies have adopted an open policy on chemicals, going well beyond the requirements of the law. At Missouri's Springfield Remanufacturing Center Co., for example, all chemicals entering the plant are noted on data sheets. Every department has a copy of the records, as do the fire department, police department, sheriff's office, civil defense, Missouri Safety Council, and six area hospitals. Employees are kept informed through meetings, and are encouraged to discuss the subject with family members and other outsiders. Company spokes-people do the same with members of the local media.

"I'm protecting my business from the idea that we're doing something wrong," says SRC president Jack Stack. "Unless you're open about these things, you can wind up on the front page of the newspaper over nothing. I mean, you might spill Comet Cleanser in the parking lot, and people will imagine that you're killing babies."