Promotion of work safety management a long-term mission, but we have no choice

By Mr Tim De Meyer, Director, ILO Country Office for China and Mongolia

Statement | Beijing, China | 28 April 2014
Every year on 28 April, the ILO and its constituents around the world commemorate the millions of workers who put their life, safety and health on the line to give all of us a better life. In 10 minutes  40 workers will have died from a work-related accident or disease worldwide, and 6,400 workers will have had a work-related accident.

More importantly perhaps, International Workers’ Memorial Day encourages us to redouble our efforts to prevent accidents, injuries and diseases from happening in the first place. That is because we do know that fatalities and accidents can be prevented if we do a few things things: get governments to recognize at the highest level that investing in prevention pays off for people and for the economy and get government agencies in charge of labour, industry safety and health to pool their efforts; put employers in the driver’s seat managing and nurturing a preventative culture; and last but not least empower workers and trade unions to actively participate in prevention rather than be at the receiving end of well-intentioned but ineffective instructions.

As if by a cruel twist of irony, we also remember the 1,138 workers who died in Bangladesh one year ago when the Rana Plaza garment factory building collapsed. The tragedy prompted the government to upgrade the Chief Inspector of Factories and Establishments office to a department, sanctioning 679 new staff positions in the Directorate, including 392 new inspectors. Necessary, but for the victims, unfortunately, too late.

In the past decade, the ILO and the SAWS organized activities on this day every year to mark the world OSH day. With the commitment of both sides, this joint event has been institutionalized. Today, we see the fruits of our joint efforts: a more widespread preventative safety culture and a growing public awareness on workplace safety and health.

The theme for the 2014 World Day for Safety and Health at Work is “Safety and health in the use of chemicals at work”. In recent years, the world has made significant progress in the regulation and management of chemicals, but more needs to be done. According to the World Health Organization, globally 4.9 million deaths were attributable to environmental exposure and the use of chemicals every year.

China is the largest manufacturing country of chemical products in the world, so the challenges are obvious. The government of China clearly attaches great importance to improving chemical safety and has made great progress in reducing the number of accidents and deaths related to the use of hazardous chemicals and in the chemical industry within the period of the 12th Five-year Plan. China has ratified the ILO Occupational Safety and Health Convention (No. 155) and the ILO Chemicals Convention (No. 170). In 2013, the ILO welcomed various State Council and SAWS regulations on the safety management of hazardous chemicals. The ILO particularly commended the the pilot project in Shanghai covering 468 hazardous chemicals, of which 139 have been banned from production, storage, operation, transport and use in Shanghai, 170 banned from the central urban district, and 159 of which are subject to restriction and control.

Even though strictly speaking not a chemical, it is also worth expressing our admiration that China's Ministry of Industry and Information Technology officially categorized asbestos as a toxic and hazardous substance in December 2012, thus declaring it could be replaced by safer alternatives. Earlier this month, the Hong Kong Legislative Council went a step further and adopted the Air Pollution Control (Amendment) (No. 2) Ordinance 2013 on January 22 banning the import, transhipment, supply and use of all forms of asbestos.

Experience from around the world suggests that these valuable efforts must not relent. Two aspects in particular stand out. We must remain alert to occupational poisoning as chemicals and their use across national borders proliferate as a result of globalization and technological progress. We must be particularly be alert to the danger in SMEs where workers are often relatively lower-skilled, often originate from more vulnerable groups in society, do not benefit from regular training and are less protected by trade unions.

This year in China, we are choosing to celebrate world OSH day in a practical and meaningful way. Our Chinese and international OSH specialists are gathering here today to contribute to the revision of the Basic Standard for Work safety Standardization in Enterprises. I appreciate SAWS’ trust in the ILO for the development of such important policy work.

In undertaking this work on the revision of the Basic Standard, SAWS is echoing the call of the International Labour Conference when it adopted in 2006 the Promotional Framework for OSH Convention, 2006 (No. 187) and Recommendation (No. 197). China has not yet ratified C. 187, and I express the hope that China will consider doing so. It has garnered 29 ratifications in less than 8 years and is now widely considered the most central OSH Convention together with C. 155. On the occasion, the international community encouraged its member States to promote a management systems approach to occupational safety and health, such as the approach set out in the Guidelines on occupational safety and health management systems (ILO-OSH 2001).

Today, technological progress and intense competitive pressures bring rapid change in working conditions, work processes and organization. Legislation is essential but insufficient on its own to address these changes or to keep pace with new hazards and risks. Organizations must also be able to tackle occupational safety and health challenges continuously and to build effective responses into dynamic management strategies. Health and safety management is not about creating more top-down regulation or more revenue for regulatory authorities. It is about creating a culture dedicated to eliminating near misses, accidents at work and work related ill health. Implicit in this is a high level of health and safety awareness of both employers and workers.

To successfully promote the occupational safety and health management systems at organizational level, I believe the following factors need to be considered:

- Workers’ participation. Full workers’ participation is strongly promoted in all ILO OSH standards. Workers and their representatives should be given the opportunity, through direct involvement and consultation, to fully participate in the management of OSH in the organization.

- Small scale enterprises. We have to think of support mechanisms for the progressive improvement of occupational safety and health conditions in micro-enterprises, in small and medium-sized enterprises and in the informal economy. Without these support mechanisms, SMEs will not be able to comply with any standard, be it mandatory or voluntary.

-The role of labour inspection. With adequate training, labour inspectors could certainly play a decisive role in ensuring that OSH management programmes, including auditing mechanisms, conform to national laws and regulations. Capacity-building of labour inspectors is essential for successful implementation of the OSH management systems at enterprise level.

The promotion of work safety management at enterprise level will be a long-term mission – but we have no choice. For a country as big as China, the promotion, implementation, monitoring and improvement of the OSH management system at organizational level will be a complicated and challenging task, especially in SMEs – but we have no choice.

The ILO – it has no choice either. Protecting workers against unacceptable forms of work is one of only 8 areas of critical importance the ILO's constituents think the Organization should focus on. Unacceptable forms of work comprise conditions that deny fundamental principles and rights at work, put at risk the lives, health, freedom, human dignity and security of workers or keep households in conditions of extreme poverty. Hazardous work that does not offer adequate prevention nor protection is unacceptable. And so the ILO will remain at the service of its Chinese constituents to provide its experience and knowledge along the way.

I believe that the experience of China in this field will be of great value for other countries, especially those at the similar stage of development. It will contribute to experience-sharing in the context of South-South cooperation.

I would like to conclude with the words of Prime Minister Li Keqiang when he outlined the forthcoming work of the government of China to the National People’s Congress last month: “There is nothing more important than human life, so we must always give our full attention to workplace safety. We must strictly enforce laws and regulations on workplace safety, fully implement the responsibility system for it, and resolutely prevent the occurrence of major and very serious work-related accidents.”