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BWI health and safety - a top priority

The Global 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 issue.

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 justice.

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 production costs.

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.