health and safety - a top priority
Health and Safety Programme
Work related injuries and ill health are increasing.
About two million people are killed by their work every year. Nearly
all of these deaths are readily preventable.
The related economic costs are colossal. The ILO calculates that
losses due to compensation, lost work days, lost productivity, training
and retraining, and medical expenses routinely amount to roughly
4 per cent of the world’s GNP, and possibly much more. This
makes prevention of work- related injuries and ill health a development
The Building and Wood Workers International launched their Global Health and Safety Programme in 2000.
Today, about one hundred trade unions in more than 60 countries
are involved in the Programme’s activities to improve conditions
for workers in construction, forestry and timber trades world wide.
The Programme helps affiliates to develop and strengthen their structure,
legislative and policy agenda and their organising strategy.
In construction about one hundred thousand workers are killed on
site every year, that figure represents almost 30 per cent of all
fatal injuries. That’s one person dying every five minutes
because of bad, and illegal, working conditions.
The construction industry has a deservedly notorious reputation
as being dirty, difficult and dangerous. Tropical loggers stand
a one in ten chance of being killed over a working lifetime. Sawmills
are increasingly subcontracted and hazardous, whilst wood working
continues to rely on the workers skills to avoid injuries, rather
than on any prevention measures. Wood working machinery still causes
more serious injuries than machinery in any other sector.
Work related ill health accounts for many hundreds of thousands
of premature deaths in our sectors. Asbestos related deaths, at
the astonishing figure of one hundred thousand a year, now out number
the deaths from occupational accidents or indeed road traffic deaths
in several countries. Yet work related ill health is ignored.
Deafness, skin disease, musculo skeletal injuries, respiratory
disease, cardio vascular problems, central nervous system, reproductive
system, kidney and liver damage are all common work related health
problems in our sectors. However, the fact that they are caused
by bad working conditions is not recognised. The diseases are not
reported, notified, treated, compensated or, most importantly, prevented.
It’s a vicious circle caused by the social invisibility of
work related ill health.
Workers are killed, injured and made sick whilst carrying out routine
jobs. The hazards are well known and so are the prevention measures.
The overwhelming majority of “accidents” are absolutely
predictable and preventable. They are caused by failure to manage
risks, or by straightforward negligence on the part of the employer.
All workers have rights to organise, to collective bargaining,
to information and training, to be represented, and to refuse dangerous
work, but the reality is very different. Unorganised workers have
no choice – either they take a dirty and dangerous job, or
they will have no job at all.
The widespread use of flexible employment practices seriously
undermines trade union capacity to organise. Downsizing, outsourcing,
labour-only sub contracting and informal labour create bad working
conditions. Greed and corruption is rife in our sectors, and the
consequence of bad management is the deterioration of working and
living conditions for millions of workers and their families. To
make matters worse, governments frequently have a permissive, passive
attitude towards employers who ignore health and safety laws, even
when their negligence leads to the death of a worker.
The BWI Programme organises training for trade unionists to help
them organise effectively on health and safety. This includes institutional
participation to improve laws and policy, and participation in the
workplace through safety representatives and safety committees.
We also run campaigns for a worldwide ban on asbestos; for strong
health and safety laws that are properly promoted and enforced;
and our affiliates around the world celebrate International Workers
Memorial Day, a permanent organising campaign to highlight the preventable
nature of workplace accidents and ill health and to demand social
Lack of respect for the law and for workers rights is at the root
of the problem. Prevention is undermined by the informal economy,
which now accounts for around half the workers in the world. The
lack of legal and social protection, and lack of representation
and rights at work, are central issues that must be addressed if
we are to improve health and safety standards.
Regarding coverage offered by health and safety and International
Labour Standards, the challenge is how to extend occupational safety
and health protection to vulnerable groups of workers falling outside
the scope of traditional protective measures.
The labour force is covered fully only in a handful of countries
in terms of protection against hazards, enforcement or compensation.
Most workers in the world have no coverage by protective legislation
against hazards, have never encountered an inspector, received compensation
in the event of accidents or been protected by preventive occupational
health services. There is an increasing rate of occupational injuries
and disease in developing and industrialising countries.
In both industrialised and developing countries the most hazardous
sectors are still construction, forestry, agriculture, fishing and
mining. It is anticipated that about 2.5 billion new jobs will be
created over the next 50 years, mostly in developing countries and
mostly in construction, forestry, agriculture and mining.
New work organization patterns are resulting in outsourcing toward
the informal economy and as a consequence higher potential for increased
accidents and diseases. Workers are increasingly migrating from
rural to urban areas and have to cope with unfamiliar and dangerous
tasks. Subcontracting by large enterprises is fuelling the growth
of small and medium sized enterprises and the use of casual labour.
This trend towards flexible contractual conditions, notably temporary
work, has a negative impact on health and safety and even basic
requirements are not met. SMEs are lacking in the awareness and
resources to implement health and safety management systems, whilst
information, training, co-ordination, planning and responsibilities
for prevention are extremely weak.
Awareness of the positive values of a safe and healthy working
environment in terms of economic benefits and social justice is
either low or non existent. Very often, health and safety is seen
as a burden in a highly competitive race to achieve the lowest possible
Unfortunately, it’s a race with no finish line. Workers are
not seen as an asset but rather as a cost, and flexible employment
practices offer employers the opportunity to avoid all sorts of
legal obligations, including the duty of care normally associated
with an employer – employee relationship.
The likelihood is that billions of new workers will find employment
mostly in the informal economy and therefore be outside of even
basic labour protection. This raises issues such as the lack of
social and legal protection, lack of education, skills and OSH training,
lack of representation and rights. These are important risk factors
likely to result in highly precarious situations and increased vulnerability
in terms of accidents and diseases.
Strong unions mean safe jobs
Participation is the central theme for us. It is essential that
workers are involved in the development and implementation of prevention
initiatives at all levels. This includes the BWI’s policy
work at Global level with the International Labour Organisation,
the company framework agreements, and the International Financial
Institutions. This global work then has to be put into practice
at the national level. The Programme works with affiliates on their
institutional participation to develop the national and sectoral
agenda on OHS legislation and policy. It also includes prevention
campaigns, with relevant information and training. Most importantly,
unions make a practical contribution to prevention by their participation
in the workplace. This is principally through the work of Trade
Union Safety Representatives and joint Health and Safety Committees
on policy and management of OHS.
Considering that low trade union density and lack of recognition
of trade unions for collective bargaining is undermining standards
in living and working conditions in our sector, the Programme is
increasingly emphasising the development of strategies for reaching
potential members, particularly those in the informal economy. There
are many interesting strategies emerging , but principally the key
is to reach workers wherever possible to advise them of their rights,
and to help them get those rights collectively. This means also,
as far as possible, to use those rights based activities to make
practical improvements in living and working conditions, to address
immediate needs such as shelter, food and water, childcare, health
and education and, above all, employment and decent work, with the
aim of recruiting and organising workers in the union.
The vital point about OHS and welfare is that this is one area
where immediate opportunities exist for practical, visible improvements
in living and working conditions. Practical experience from the
Global Health and Safety Programme shows that OHS work in the informal
economy can strengthen trade union structures, institutional participation,
networking and organising. The potential for trade union recruitment
and development is enormous.