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Hazards issue 131, July-September 2015
New guide shows how to get a voice and power at work
Workers are best positioned to see the hazards in their workplace and, when they have voice and power at work, to take action to prevent illness or injury. But when workers are denied respect, fair treatment, and the right to organise, they have no voice and no power.


A new Hesperian health guide is a tool for workers worldwide to develop the power to take control of their health at work. The Workers’ guide to health and safety argues workers are best placed to be researchers, experts, and leaders in addressing the issues of health, safety, and justice that affect them. They know and experience the conditions firsthand.

Workers are motivated because they win the most when conditions are improved. Yet in many workplaces, workers have little to no say. Employers and managers more concerned about maintaining control and keeping costs down even prevent workers from contributing to health and safety – except when they blame workers for problems. Training on occupational safety and health is often extremely limited, if it even exists, and any information given by management, written from their perspective, invariably is lacking the most fundamental tool of occupational health and safety: power.

Power – the lack of it, how it shapes work, and reclaiming it through knowledge – is a central focus of the guide. It starts from the understanding that for most workers in the world, the “right to health” is difficult to attain, and impossible to retain, without organising. In a world where wages are too low, hours too long, line speeds too fast, and the company’s hatred of unions too deep, the Workers’ Guide shows workers where they can find answers to health problems caused by work, and how to take advantage of even the smallest opening to make changes at work.

Using straightforward language and illustrations, this resource can be used by anyone interested in improving conditions in the workplace, no matter their education level.  While covering workplace problems such as electrical hazards, machine dangers, ergonomics, chemical use, fire, among others, the Workers’ Guide breaks new ground by also focusing on “social hazards”: low wages, long hours, sexual harassment, workplace violence, and other problems that affect factory workers’ health but are usually not considered part of occupational health and safety. The book also covers specific illnesses that are common or exacerbated by factory conditions, such as HIV, tuberculosis, and mental health problems. 

Global lessons The Workers’ Guide was field-tested by 40 grassroots groups in 25 countries and reviewed by over 300 individuals in a diverse range of fields. Here, a group of female workers in Mexico discuss the social hazards chapters.

Working together  Anybody can learn about health and safety at work and everyone can help others learn, too. Through activities and how-to’s, Workers’ Guide illustrates how workers can recognise hazards, discuss what they can do now, and organise to make sustainable improvements down the road.


Powerful argument Workers know how to improve their work so it does not harm them. Wellness programmes that blame-the-worker and focus only on what the worker needs to do - “have a better posture!” - while ignoring work design, harm workers. When workers have the tools, the voice and the power to participate in creating safer, healthier workplaces, their workplaces become safer and healthier.


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for most workers in the world, the ‘right to health’ is difficult to attain, and impossible to retain without organising. 

Further information
Workers’ guide to health and safety, Hesperian Health Guides, 2015. ISBN 978-0-942364-71-2, $35 paperback. Sample chapters and illustrations free online. www.hesperian.org

Hesperian has an open copyright policy and encourages you to adapt, translate, and use the materials as long as you credit the source and do not use them for profit. You can contact the authors, Miriam Lara-Meloy, Todd Jailer and Maggie Robbins, at: workersguide@hesperian.org

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