On this World Day for Safety and Health at Work, as every day, some 7,500 workers will die from its absence.
Protection of workers’ health and safety is core to achieving sustainable, decent working conditions. Workers should not suffer accidents or illness, or even die, as a result of an unsafe and unhealthy working environment.
Yet the global evidence of poor practice in occupational safety and health (OSH) is staggering. Before the pandemic, the International Labour Organization estimated that annually more than 2.78 million deaths resulted from occupational accidents or work-related diseases, with 7,500 people dying from unsafe and unhealthy working conditions on average every single day. Additionally, there are some 374 million non-fatal work-related injuries each year.
Within the European Union, the latest figures suggest there were more than 3,300 fatal and 3.1 million non-fatal accidents in 2018, with more than 200,000 workers dying each year from work-related illnesses. On top of the paramount human tragedy, work-related accidents and illnesses cost the EU economy over 3.3 per cent of gross domestic product annually.
Protecting the fundamental human right to a safe and healthy workplace has long been demanded of policy-makers. And the EU treaties, the Charter of Fundamental Rights, the European Pillar of Social Rights and the recent European Commission strategy for decent work worldwide, as well as the United Nations’ sustainable development goals (SDGs), all embed health and safety in European and global standards. But there remains a pressing need for a more effective regulatory mechanism, which stimulates greater accountability on the part of governments and imposes stronger obligations on companies and other organisations.
There are frameworks, of a more voluntary nature, to address the risk of adverse impacts on human and labour rights, such as the UN’s Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and its Global Compact or the older Guidelines on Multinational Enterprises from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Regrettably, however, governments and companies still lag behind in their duty to protect workers’ health and safety.
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These frameworks share a human-rights-based approach to workplace health and safety. Linking OSH to human-rights due diligence can put recognition of the right to safe and healthy working conditions on a par with the International Labour Organization’s fundamental rights to decent work—alongside freedom of association, the right to collective bargaining and the conventions on protection against child and forced labour.
In the bigger picture, OSH is an ethical and social duty. There is growing momentum, on the part of governments, investors, companies, civil society, the social partners and other stakeholders, behind making protection of OSH mainstream through regulations and standards and further embedding it into the corporate-governance framework.
As the world staggers out of the pandemic, and as governments, society, workers and employers approach the 2030 SDGs milestone, it is time to reinforce the principle that all workers should enjoy safe and healthy working conditions. This can only be realised if the right to a safe and healthy working environment is formally recognised as just that—a fundamental human right.
If an initiative to this affect is approved at the next (110th) session of the ILO’s International Labour Conference, it will entail amendment of the 1998 ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work or adoption of a self-standing declaration. Either way, this will just constitute the starting point of a long process.
In the long term more countries would feel compelled to ratify and implement core ILO labour and health-and-safety conventions covering prevention of injuries and illnesses arising from work, including throughout global supply chains. It would also favour a more human-centred commitment, on the part of the commission and EU member states, to integration of the right to safe and healthy working conditions into the ILO framework of fundamental principles and rights at work.
At a time when the European labour market is confronted with far-reaching issues—globalisation, the informal economy, technological development, precarious work—this initiative should represent an urgent and compelling wake-up call. The right of workers, irrespective of their background, type of employment or the country where they operate, to enjoy the highest level of protection at the workplace must be recognised as non-negotiable.
Dr Ivan Williams Jimenez is a policy and advocacy manager at the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health in the UK. He supports IOSH’s global advocacy on health, safety and wellbeing, corporate social responsibility, sustainability, supply chains and decent work. The views expressed here are those of the author alone.