Occupational Safety and Health

Promoting the ratification of ILO OSH conventions, building preventive OSH culture

By Mr Tim De Meyer, Director of ILO Country Office for China and Mongolia onILO/SAWS Commemoration of World Day

Statement | Beijing, China | 28 April 2016
Distinguished Vice-Minister Sun Huashan of SAWS
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Dear friends,

Good morning and welcome to this ILO/SAWS conference. Let me extend my sincere thanks to SAWS for co-organizing this seminar. As always, SAWS colleagues demonstrate a high level of professionalism and dedication in organizing this traditional event on 28 April.

A special note of thanks also to Pavan Baichoo, ILO OSH specialist, and Jane Lassey, the British Health and Safety Executive expert on hazardous installations for travelling from afar and enlightening us with their expertise. I would also like to thank every one of you for your participation and contribution.

We have a particularly rich agenda today – commemorating the millions of workers that die or get critically injured or ill at work on the World Day for Safety and Health; strengthening our commitment to safe work by reviewing the ratification prospects of some key ILO Conventions; and giving some thought to the meaning of preventative safety inspection.

First, the Conventions. We are reviewing the ratification prospects of a key ILO Convention promoting safe and healthy workplaces based on a preventative culture. I would like to commend SAWS’ leadership in pursuing the ratification of the Promotional Framework for Occupational Safety and Health Convention, 2006 (No. 187). It shows the determination of the Chinese government to improve workplace safety and health, underscored by state leaders on repeated occasions, including the newly adopted 13th Five-Year plan; the report delivered by Premier Li Keqiang in the NPC session in March this year; and the 13th Five-Year Plan of Work Safety. It is direct contribution to the 2030 Development Agenda, in particular SDG 8.8 – “8.8 Protect labour rights and promote safe and secure working environments of all workers, including migrant workers, in particular women migrants, and those in precarious employment”.

C. 187 consolidates 2 key lessons learned by countries worldwide in recent decades. One, safe work is not the mathematically guaranteed outcome of tighter regulation and stricter enforcement. Safe work results first and foremost from shared values that do not tolerate accidents, injuries, diseases; from relentless focus on coordinated action between policymakers, law enforcers, workers and employers, health professionals and training institutes. I would call for SAWS to take the lead in establishing a national advisory mechanism on OSH. Secondly, as economies develop, become more diversified and market forces play a greater role, employers – not inspectors – need to be put in the driver’s seat (occasionally the “hot seat”) when it comes to assessing the risks to safety and health inherent in their commercial operations and determining preventive measures.

That assessment critically needs to be made together with workers. Engaging workers in day-to-day OSH management, training and information are not just rights, they are essential in realizing a zero accident vision.

The same is true for the Tianjin explosion last August. One can debate whether chemicals should have been stored further away from residential areas or whether the warehouse owners should have complied with specific regulations. But certain is that lives would have been saved if firefighters or workers in their dormitories would have known and be prepared for dealing with the exact contents of the warehouse nearby. So today, we are looking forward to hearing the United Kingdom’s experience in protecting workers, citizens and the environment against the potentially destructive impact of major hazard installations that are part and parcel of our modern world and of technological progress – the lesson learned by too many countries too late is that major industrial accidents could have been prevented if control and emergency measures – ideally contained in a code of practice – had been established, understood and applied in time. Prevention of major industrial accidents is a priority of the 13th Five-Year plan of Work Safety and I welcome that determination.

Then, let me address the theme of the World Safety and Health Day this year, “Workplace Stress: a collective challenge”. When people talk about work safety, they usually think of more typical risks such as workplace explosions or chemical poisoning. Yet, new occupational hazards, such as work-related stress are affecting ever more countries, workers and indeed economies. In Europe, work-related stress represents 50% and 60% of all lost working days – exerting downward pressures on productivity. Causes are multiple – economic recession which leads to higher unemployment and job insecurity and globalization and the dramatic changes in the world of work such as digitalization, higher job demands and workload. Symptoms commonly associated with stress and job strains include cardiovascular diseases, musculoskeletal disorders, depression and anxiety. They can also lead to unhealthy coping behaviors such as increased cigarette smoking and insufficient physical activity.

Tackling workplace stress is challenging in the labor-intensive manufacturing sector where the combination of long working hours, poor working conditions, low pay, lack of job security, especially among the young people, can increase psychological hazards, which in some cases can be lethal. Just days ago Chinese media reported the death – suggested to result from overwork – of a 14-year old boy employed in a lingerie factory in Foshan. The scenario drives home the need for a systemic rather than a fragmented approach to workplace inspections. One can debate whether the incident suggests failure to comply with minimum age standards; with working time laws; or regulatory failure to recognize workplace stress as a health hazard; perhaps failure of the labour inspection rather than the safety inspection to enforce the law. The really relevant question is whether the mechanisms, protocols exist for sharing of information, coordinating action between inspectorates and mandating them to feed their findings back into policy-making while at the same time supporting businesses trying to comply with globally recognized standards. That is the systemic question that would arise from C.187.

Around this time every year, we also commemorate the 1,500 Bangladeshi garment workers who lost their lives when their workplace building collapsed 3 years ago. International brands and their consumers are increasingly expecting their global suppliers to take safe work seriously and actively prevent such accidents. This has implications for governments and labour inspectorates who can no longer exclusively focus on straightforward regulatory enforcement but more on prevention and assisting businesses with meeting multiple expectations while safeguarding both jobs and work safety. That is the mandate of a modern, prevention-oriented labour inspection set with much foresight in the Labour Inspection Convention, 1947 (No. 81).

Ladies and gentlemen, China’s political commitment to safety and health at the central level is strong, and we are witnessing a downward trend in workplace accidents and fatalities in recent years, especially in the most hazardous sectors such as coal mines. China’s Presidency of the G20 has the opportunity to further the goals set by the G20 summits in Melbourne in 2014 and in Ankara in 2015: to give “urgent priority that protects workers and contributes to increased productivity and growth”. With your engagement, we hope this G20 employment ministers’ meeting hosted by China will reconfirm the G20 commitment to the OSH objectives.
Promoting workers’ health and safety is a never-ending mission on a long and winding road. The ILO has walked that road for many years, using standards as its walking stick. Premier Li Keqiang said at the March National People’s Congress session this year: “Life is more important than all the rest, and safety weighs more than Mount Tai”. The picture brings to mind an ancient Chinese idiom: an Old Fool removes Mountains (愚公移山). We may be old and sometimes foolish, but I know that together we can move Mount Tai.

I thank you all and wish you a very successful discussion.