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Occupational safety and health

Making Chinese factories safer

The ILO SCORE programme helps factories in China improve their record on occupational safety.

Feature | China | 24 August 2016
Safety inspector Jiang Yuefang visits a factory.
NANXUN, China (ILO News) - Safety inspector Jiang Yuefang now looks forward to her weekly meetings with a local motor manufacturer in China’s Nanxun, Zhejiang Province.

The discussions on factory risks and hazards with the 10-member team of managers and workers now seems a normal part of the working routine. Yet, she recalls, only a year ago such a meeting would have been almost unimaginable.

Then, some factories owners and managers worried about Jiang’s visits, rather than welcoming them. The relationship became “very unharmonious,” she says, because the factories thought the main role of safety inspectors like Jiang was to find examples of non-compliance with safety laws, and punish them.

Issues arose with Small and Medium-Sized Enterprises (SMEs) in particular, especially those with fewer than 300 employees, because such businesses often have limited knowledge of how to identify hazards and risks, and may not have ready access to professional health and safety services.

“Managers sometimes equated no accidents with no problems. So much so that if inspectors identified regulatory compliance issues, factories would become very reluctant,” Jiang says.

But, in May 2015, Jiang was selected to join a pilot training programme, Sustaining Competitive and Responsible Enterprises (SCORE). The SCORE training initiative is the result of cooperation between the ILO and China’s State Administration of Work Safety (SAWS). The programme operates on the premise that improved workplace cooperation in SMEs leads to better working conditions, productivity gains and a more co-operative approach within companies as well as with safety inspectors.

Five factories joined the initial training. For the first time, Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) inspectors, managers and workers sat side-by-side during the workshop. Afterwards each plant created an “Enterprise Improvement Team” (EIT) that brought together workers and managers to identify challenges and solve problems.

In the months since the EITs were formed Jiang has witnessed a remarkable change.

“Managers were very impressed by the brainstorming of employees and realized that every worker could be an inspector for her or his own job,” she said.

The role of the OSH inspectors is to provide guidance and technical advice to the new EIT system. To help them make progress Jiang began weekly visits to the five factories. With managers, workers and inspectors now working toward the same goal, concrete results soon followed.

In one six-month period there were more than 1,600 employee suggestions. They covered all kinds of workplace issues - not just safety and health - for making work and production more efficient. More than 1,000 safety hazards were resolved.

The new system became a win-win solution for the five factories. They estimate that 25 million Chinese RMB (approximately US$3.8 million) has been saved through reduced healthcare costs and more efficient production.

“Before, we weren’t much concerned about the environment on the shop-floor,” said Yang Long, a timber factory worker who attended the SCORE training. “SCORE training helped us understand better the hazards in the workplace, and the risks to our health. Now everyone voluntarily conducts a daily self-audit of their own work, and proactively provides suggestions. Managers and workers are working more closely.”

He Yifang, Manufacturing Director of an elevator producer in Nanxun, agrees. “We now deeply believe that improvement is everywhere and endless,” she said.

The new approach has been fully supported by SAWS, which works to rid workplaces of accidents, injuries and diseases. To this end, SCORE is seen as having brought in new elements that can help create a national, preventative, safety and health culture.

As a result, after the one-year pilot project in Nanxun, Vice Minister Sun Huashan of SAWS decided to integrate the SCORE methodology into the Chinese OSH Management System (COSH MS), and make SCORE available to more SMEs.

“The achievements are very good,” Sun said. “SAWS would like to further collaborate with the ILO to promote outcomes.”

Challenges remain, of course. China’s private sector has seen explosive growth. In 2013 there were 42 million SMEs in the country but just 29,000 safety inspectors.

The Chinese government is attaching growing importance to work safety. Recent amendments to the Law on Work Safety have put in place a “responsibility system” at workplace level that includes work safety plans, re-affirmed employee rights and obligations, and significantly increased sanctions for non-compliance.

“In a market economy, preventing injuries and accidents in the workplace is the primary responsibility of employers,” said Tim De Meyer, Country Director of the ILO Office for China and Mongolia. “Employers need to empower and engage workers. For inspectors, enforcing the laws is their primary, but not only, responsibility. There are growing demands for inspectors to give more attention to supporting preventive action within companies.”

So far, more than 130 Chinese companies from Liaoning, Chongqing, Zhejiang, Jiangsu and Guangdong have been trained through SCORE. Plans are now being laid to further expand the work to meet demand. This will require more tailored trainings, an internet-based data collection system, and further integration with other OSH systems.

Inspector Jiang is a strong advocate for the new co-operative approach.

“Our role is more like a nutritionist than a doctor, to help SMEs build their own capacity to maintain a safe workplace,” she said. “The most important thing is to establish mutual trust. When the inspection is more service-oriented, enterprises become more cooperative.”