By Srinivas Reddy
Every day, 6,300 people die around the world as a result of occupational accidents or work-related diseases — more than 2.3 million deaths per year. The human cost of this daily adversity is vast and the economic burden of poor occupational safety and health practices is estimated at 4 percent of global gross domestic product each year.
While Bangladesh’s industrial base has grown rapidly over the past three decades, workplace safety has failed to keep pace with this development. Though there is no complete data on how many workers suffer occupational accidents in Bangladesh each year, according to the Bangladesh Institute of Labour Studies’ (BILS) newspaper-based survey, a total of 5,909 workers died and 14,413 workers were injured in different occupational accidents over a ten-year period (2002–2012).
For too long, occupational safety and health (OSH) issues have not received necessary and adequate attention, resulting in accidents and loss of life. Things, however, are starting to change and a safety culture is slowly emerging through the efforts of the government, employers and workers organisations with the support of brands, retailers and various development partners.
The government of Bangladesh recently produced the country’s first ever OSH policy and is in the process of finalising a national OSH profile. Work is also starting on a National Plan of Action on OSH. These policy documents provide vital guidance to all national OSH efforts and will help prioritise areas with the biggest potential gains.
At the workplace level we need to ensure that factory managers, supervisors and workers all have basic OSH understanding both in terms of practicalities and rights. The emphasis will always be on prevention, but at the same time all staff members need to know what to do in the face of an accident or emergency. A considerable amount of safety training has been carried out by various stakeholders in recent years. The fall in the numbers of workplace fires and related casualties points to the effectiveness of these actions and the lives and livelihoods which have potentially been saved.
Workers must be helped to better understand their rights relating to workplace safety — the right to use personal protective equipment where necessary, the right to stop hazardous work, the right to ask for help from the labour inspectorate and so on. Employers too have a vital role to play and need to be fully aware of their obligations. Workplace safety should be top priority for them. Money spent on safety is an investment that will not only benefit workers but the business as well. The more effective and efficient labour inspectorate which has emerged since the Rana Plaza tragedy is now better placed to actively enforce regulations relating to safety as well as provide advice and guidance to factory owners on how to meet them.
Another priority is the establishment of safety committees in all factories with more than 50 workers. By bringing worker and employer representatives together, safety committees will play an important function. They will act as a channel for worker participation in improving safety at work and hence the need to provide free and fair opportunities for workers to choose their own safety committee representatives is critical.
In addition, we cannot separate the issue of worker safety from worker rights. Workers who are empowered and aware are fundamental to workplace safety. Trade unions play a vital role in this regard and must be allowed to form and operate freely within all industries. We need to empower workers and their organisations and enable them to become active partners in progress.
On this occasion, I would like to congratulate the labour and employment ministry and especially the Department of Inspection for Factories and Establishments for organising events in Dhaka and around the country to mark World Day for Safety and Health at Work in Bangladesh for the first time.
I sincerely look forward to this Day becoming the high point of a year-round series of OSH activities. It is the perfect time to reflect on what has been achieved and to energise all our efforts to ensure safe workplaces and decent work for each and every worker in Bangladesh.
The writer is International Labour Organisation’s country director for Bangladesh