Thrive, survive or die: strengthening health, safety and environment (HSE) issues in the world of work
According to the International Labour Organisation (ILO), a whopping 2.3 million workers die annually worldwide from work-related accidents and diseases which translates to some 250 deaths per hour despite the gross underreporting of occupational accidents and diseases. For the commonwealth of independent countries alone, 12 million men and women fall victim to occupational accidents yearly. Deaths associated with the use of hazardous substances at the workplace are estimated to be in the region of 651,279 yearly even though the construction sector has been reported to record a higher rate of accidents.
The ILO was therefore established to minimise these numbers by engendering a safe work environment through the adoption of international labour standards to govern work conditions worldwide. These standards which usually take two forms (namely Conventions and Recommendations) are adopted during International Labour Conferences where relevant stakeholders including governments, employers, and workers across the globe are represented. The Recommendations are envisioned to provide advice, direction of some sort, and guidance for national policy and practice associated with the work environment. The Conventions on the other hand are international treaties that have obligations enshrined in them under international law for State parties to ratify.
The issue of strengthening the culture of excellence in Occupational Health, Safety and Environment begins to fail when HSE-related ILO Conventions are not comprehensively ratified by member states. This sometimes leaves corporations within those States room to engage in what would be substandard activities that contribute to harm on one hand and pollution on the other. This phenomenon defeats the purpose of these conventions and slackens the global fight for increased control of work-related HSE issues.
Until recently, the principle of a safe and healthy working environment wasn’t part of the ILO’s Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work. Its addition on 10th June 2022 as the 5th category of the Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work connotes that all ILO Member States commit to respect and promote the fundamental right to a safe and healthy working environment, irrespective of their ratification status in relation to relevant Health and Safety Conventions (see fundamental conventions in Table 1 below).
That said, a number of gaps exist in building and strengthening the culture of excellence in HSE towards enhancing the sustainability agenda (e.g., environmental quality and public health – nontoxic environment, clean air, water, etc). The remaining paragraphs briefly identify these gaps and how they can be bridged.
Low ratification status of HSE-related ILO conventions
Even though the principle of a safe and healthy working environment is closely associated with the most relevant ILO Conventions (i.e., Occupational Safety and Health Convention, 1981 (No. 155), and the Promotional Framework for Occupational Safety and Health Convention, 2006 (No. 187)) and other associated HSE Conventions, more than half of member States are yet to ratify these Conventions. The Convention on Occupational Safety and Health for instance has only 76 ratifications with members of the ILO Governing Council like the United States of America and the United Kingdom yet to ratify as well as more than half of African States. Even more telling is the fact that the Protocol of 2002 to the Occupational Safety and Health Convention, 1981 has just 18 ratifications out of the 187 member States.
Most of these Conventions have provisions that spell out the responsibilities of all actors including workers and their representatives, employers, States, and even suppliers when carcinogenic chemicals are involved (see e.g., the Chemicals Convention, 1990 (No. 170)) which covers the entire lifecycle of chemicals (Article 2c) but sadly has only 23 ratifications. Article 4(1) of the Benzene Convention for instance obligates ratified members to prohibit products containing benzene in certain work processes under national laws or regulations; and goes further in Article 11(1) to prevent women medically certified as pregnant, and nursing mothers, from workplaces involving the exposure to benzene or products containing benzene. Fascinatingly, benzene is used in styrene and phenol, both of which are common raw materials for plastic production and could therefore affect workers (particularly women) in the plastic industry but unfortunately, the Benzene Convention has just 38 ratifications.
Clearly, more needs to be done by the International labour office through the ILO’s Governing Council to devise ways of gathering support from ILO’s member States to fully ratify the HSE-related ILO Conventions shown in Table 1 below before or during the International Labour Conference.
Table 1. HSE-related ILO Conventions and their ratification status
ILO’s HSE-related Conventions
Allocate more resources to execute the International Labour Standards policy
Once high ratification levels are achieved, the next logical action is for the ILO Governing Council to allocate more resources to execute the international labour standards policy which encompasses four standards strategy: 1. Better promotion and application of the existing corpus of up-to-date ILO standards; 2. Strengthening of the supervisory system; 3. Achieving greater visibility of ILO standards; and 4. Providing technical assistance and cooperation, and capacity building to member States.
The role of industry
As a stop-gap measure, corporations including national and more importantly multinational corporations with operations in different jurisdictions could use the provisions in the HSE-related ILO Conventions (for example, Prevention Convention of Major Industrial Accidents Convention, 1993 (No. 174); Working Environment (Air Pollution, Noise and Vibration) Convention, 1977 (No. 148); and the Safety and Health in Mines Convention, 1995 (No. 176)) as a harmonised guide to enhancing HSE issues even when the countries they operate in have not yet ratified the Conventions.
This could engender co-learning among industry players particularly corporate executives including in-house counsels, corporate lawyers, employment and industrial relations lawyers, and HSE practitioners as far as the international legal framework concerning HSE is concerned. Industry can also take the lead and lobby the governments of countries they operate in to bring HSE to the forefront of policymakers which could help in speeding up the ratification process.
Competent national authorities such as the Ministry of Labour and/or Employment and the Ministry of Environment and their associated institutions should bring the HSE agenda to the forefront of national policy dialogue and encourage their governments to ratify HSE-associated Conventions where they have not.
Governments must also provide the necessary resources for governmental bodies to work effectively and free of political interference drawing on ILO’s governance HSE-related Conventions such as the Labour Inspection Convention, 1947 (No. 81); Labour Inspection (Agriculture) Convention, 1969 (No. 129); and the Tripartite Consultation (International Labour Standards) Convention, 1976 (No. 144). Once ratified, the government must commit to submitting reports including information and views of employers and workers especially national occupational, health, and safety personnel as mandated by the Convention to aid the work of ILO’s supervisory machinery which seeks to ensure that ratifying member States put the provisions of the Conventions in effect, both in law and practice.
Technical training could also be sort from the ILO through, for example, the ILO International Training Centre to adequately train national actors. Additionally, relevant government agencies must encourage legal reforms using the Conventions as a framework to develop domestic laws and procedures towards the effective implementation of ILO standards and procedures.
(I)NGOs and other organisations
(International) non-governmental organisations and other organisations working within the space could help in the promotion of HSE-related ILO Conventions to the 187 member States through information, communication, and education strategies formally and informally. These organisations could also produce reports on HSE issues that will contribute to and broaden the existing knowledge base in the field thereby enhancing decision-making premised on real-life data collected from the field.
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About the author
Daniel F. Akrofi is a Commonwealth scholar and an International Sustainability & Legal consultant. He is a Doctoral researcher in International Law & Governance at the University of Lincoln, UK, and holds an MSc. in Water, Sanitation, and International Development from Cranfield University, UK with a BSc. Environmental Science & Natural Resources Management. His expertise revolves around international law, global sustainability & strategy, global environmental (plastic) governance, circular economy, natural resource management, waste management, and WASH.