Social protection

Opening address at the 8th China International Forum on Work Safety

By Ms. Deborah Greenfield, Deputy Director-General for Policy of International Labour Office in Geneva, Switzerland

Statement | Beijing, China | 27 September 2016
Your Excellency Vice General-Secretary of the State Council Ding Xiang Yang,
Your Excellency Minister Yang Huanning, State Administration of Work Safety,
Distinguished Guests,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

Thank you so much for the opportunity to address you today at the China International Forum on Work Safety. This is the 8th biennial Forum organized by the State Administration of Work Safety (SAWS) of the People’ Republic of China (PRC) together with the International Labour Office.

This Forum has become a unique international platform to promote a preventative safety and health culture at both national and international levels. On behalf of Mr Guy Ryder, the Director-General of the International Labour Office, I would like to welcome all of you today.

I am particularly pleased that your excellency Vice Premier Ding Xiang Yang is with us here today together with other ministers, high-level participants from other countries and eminent experts in the field of occupational safety and health.

This morning I want briefly to set the global safety and health stage for you. And then I’ll turn to the significant work that China has done since the last Forum to strengthen its culture of prevention.

Occupational safety and health is a human right enshrined in international law. It is a workers’ right defined in national laws and international labour standards. Occupational safety and health goes to the heart of family well-being, community sustainability, and enterprise investment. Enterprise investments in safe and healthy – and greener conditions -- add to productivity.

YET: According to ILO estimates, work-related diseases cause approximately 2 million deaths annually. Work-related accidents, in turn, case 350,000 deaths. That’s a total of 2.35 million occupational safety and health-related deaths globally per year. We lose an estimated four per cent of global GDP every year as a result of our failure to prevent accidents, injuries and diseases at work. Based on 2014 global GDP (US$78.83 trillion), that’s the equivalent of over US$3 trillion a year. The lack of safe and healthy working conditions continues to take a toll on the global economy and threatens global sustainability.

And, while the world still struggles with major industrial disasters, technical innovation and social changes are resulting in new occupational risks. These include electromagnetic radiation, biological agents, new hazardous chemicals and high psychological strain. Here I need to emphasize the hazard of poor ergonomic conditions. The European Commission reports that musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) account for the highest number of absences from work – almost 50 per cent all absences of more than three days -- and 60 per cent of all cases of permanent incapacity for work.

So we have a long way to go.

But I want to point out developments that show sustained commitment at the highest levels to a culture of prevention.

First: This year’s Forum coincides with the Chinese Presidency of the G20. Under China’s leadership, G20 leaders have reiterated that there can be no sustainable growth without quality jobs and no quality jobs without determined prevention of accidents, injuries and diseases at work. The Leaders’ Communiqué, adopted at Hangzhou just a few weeks ago, calls, among other things, for “effective actions to ensure safer workplaces including within global supply chains . . .”

Let me give you another example of the global commitment to safety and health. Triggered by the Bangladesh factory building collapse, known worldwide as the Rana Plaza disaster in April 2013, the G7 countries recently established the Vision Zero Fund (VZF) within the framework of a “sustainable supply chains initiative”. The objective of the VZF is to work towards zero fatal and severe work-related injuries and diseases by improving occupational safety and health in sectors that link to global supply chains. Vision Zero will help strengthen institutional frameworks such as labour inspectorates and employment injury insurance schemes in affected countries. I’m pleased to say that the ILO is the administrator and implementing agency of the Vision Zero Fund.

In addition, since the Forum last met, world leaders adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, along with 17 Sustainable Development Goals. Over the next 14 years, countries will mobilize to end all forms of poverty, fight inequalities and tackle climate change, while ensuring that no one is left behind.

The SDGs stress that sustainable development depends on many things, including healthy lives and decent working environments. These are not just words. The SDGs also provide the world community with the targets and indicators to benchmark our efforts to achieve these goals.

By 2030, we must substantially reduce the number of deaths and illnesses from hazardous chemicals and air, water and soil pollution and contamination (target 3.9). We must also promote safe and secure working environments for all workers. This includes migrant workers, and in particular women migrants, as well as workers in precarious employment (target 8.8).

China has already indicated at the High-Level Political Forum on the SDGs in New York in July that “generating momentum for sustainable, healthy and stable economic growth” ranks among the 9 areas to be prioritized in the implementation of the 2030 Agenda. This is indeed a great commitment.

This is a good moment for me to switch my focus to China. But before I do let me set the stage with a quick summary of the ILO’s focus on safety and health. As most of you know, international labour standards have formed the core of the ILO’s work since the organization’s founding in 1919.

We are a normative organization. Our mandate is social justice and our Member States – Governments, Employers, and Workers – understand the role of safe and healthy workplaces in achieving that goal.

Our standards on safety and health and related topics, together with OSH codes of practice and guidelines, provide the principles, methodologies, standards and international good practices on preventive and protective measures in controlling workplace safety and health risks.

To respond to emerging safety and health needs worldwide, the ILO recently launched an Occupational Safety and Health Flagship Programme called OSHGAP or OSH Global Action for Prevention. Through OSHGAP we want to create a global culture of prevention and achieve meaningful reductions in work-related deaths, injuries and diseases. We intend to do this by working on the delivery of innovative and integrated strategies, developed through the active engagement of key partners and informed by current knowledge, research and best practices.

Let me start my remarks about China with the obvious: China’s leadership on safety and health matters. In fact, it is crucial. You are the world’s second largest economy and home to a quarter of the world’s workforce. And so it makes a difference that China has already ratified three OSH conventions, namely the Occupational Safety and Health Convention, No.155, the Safety and Health in Construction Convention No. 167 and the Chemicals Convention No. 170.

We are genuinely encouraged that China is actively examining the ratification of 3 additional Conventions, First, the most recent ILO Convention in the field of occupational safety and health, the Promotional Framework for Occupational Safety and Health Convention, 2006, No.187; Second, the Labour Inspection Convention, No. 81, which 145 member States of the ILO have ratified; and third, the Prevention of Major Industrial Accidents Convention, 1994 (No. 174).

This is but one example of how China has continuously reinforced its national OSH systems in recent years. China’s State Council Committee on Work Safety has played a leading role in developing national OSH policies and coordinating plans of action among different ministries and provinces; China has established a work safety administration at the ministerial level. It employs 29,000 OSH inspectors throughout the country; China has recently improved two of its laws -- one on work safety and the other on occupational diseases; China has re-launched its nationwide “Work Safety Month” campaign since 2002 to publicise safety and health laws among workers and employers and to promote a country-wide safety culture. And China is actively standardizing OSH management at company level.

In addition, China’s 13th Five-Year Plan, which starts this year, demonstrates your determination to address workplace safety. The plan lays out a vision in which all parties participate in this effort. It focuses on improved accountability, inspection and management of work safety; reform of the safety assessment system in order to enhance risk management, and identification and control of hidden dangers; reducing major safety accidents; safer, more environmental-friendly storage and transport of dangerous chemicals and location of major hazard installations; improved safety awareness and capability of the whole society; the participation of all parties in these efforts, and last but not least, a specific target of 30 per cent fewer fatalities per unit of GDP. These are ambitious goals. But China can accomplish them. And the ILO stands ready to offer technical assistance upon request.

China has also exercised leadership that is both astute and relentless by establishing the strong links between promoting safe work, eradicating poverty and raising living standards by 2020. Realizing these connected goals in a country as vast, dynamic and rapidly changing as China will require massive coordination efforts, which the 13th Five-Year Plan explicitly envisions. It will require special attention to groups of workers exposed to significant but not yet comprehensively governed safety and health risks.

Let me single out two of these groups that pose special challenges. First, health care workers, whose services are increasingly vital in a rapidly ageing society but who also depend on protections against communicable diseases. Second, rural migrant workers, who still form the bulk of the construction workforce but for the most part lack the employment contracts that secure them access to rights such as accident compensation.

While seeing the continuous reduction in work-related accidents and deaths in recent years, we notice that China is also making special efforts to control major accidents in a comprehensive manner. The Office of the State Council Committee on Work Safety recently issued guidelines on controlling major accidents by focusing on risks management and control at both local and enterprise levels. These are measures that promote a strong culture of prevention.

Of course, more challenges remain. As Chinese infrastructure companies go global as part of the One Belt One Road Initiative, they will be expected to uphold internationally recognized safety and health practices for their Chinese and overseas workforces alike. China’s resolve to cut overcapacity in hazardous industries such as coal mining has contributed to a sustained reduction in fatalities; we think it has also contributed to reductions in related occupational diseases, such as silicosis. We hope China maintains this resolve even if economic conditions change and commodity prices eventually rise again.

Even in a country as determined to strengthen its governance of safety and health, we know that OSH inspectors cannot replace the employers’ role in day-to-day risk assessment and control. Employers should establish OSH management systems, or Work Safety Standardization here in China, and train all workers to apply them.

Of course, employers need information and technical advice in order to fulfil their responsibilities. We know that China places a high premium on innovation and entrepreneurship. The small and medium enterprises, or SMEs, that result from the creativity of citizens depend heavily on technical assistance to get it right. Micro and SMEs in China generate 75 percent of all urban employment opportunities. They generate 60 percent of GDP.

Here I want to stress how important it is to help SMEs develop a preventive safety culture right at the beginning by showing them that “safety pays.” In fact, this is a global challenge. SMEs may have fewer resources than bigger enterprises to develop OSH management systems but they can find ways to conduct risk assessment and manage risks themselves.

Tomorrow I am visiting Zhejiang Province where the ILO and SAWS have a joint pilot project, called Sustaining Comparative and Responsible Enterprises (SCORE). Using five training modules, SCORE trainers help SMEs improve working conditions, including safety and health. And the SCORE method also builds workplace cooperation so that management and workers together come up with solutions that are effective and sustainable. In addition, SCORE helps SMEs build up their capacity to identify hazards and to assess and control risks. SCORE has demonstrated its effectiveness. I am delighted that both the ILO and SAWS agree what we should expand the program. This is particularly important for SMEs as they try to move up the supply chain ladder and create more value for enterprises and workers alike.

Experience shows time and again that a preventive safety and health culture that leaves no one behind can only take root when governments, employers and workers share and reinforce their knowledge, expertise and values on a continuing basis. Employers who do not have adequate support – and that includes financial support -- to meet the specific safety and health challenges in their workplaces will always struggle to comply with even the most well designed regulatory standards. Workers who are not adequately informed, trained or represented will always struggle to extend their vital cooperation in assessing and resolving workplace risks. The social partners must, therefore, play an active role in promoting preventative safety culture and good practices on risk assessment at all levels: national, industry and company.

I am happy to learn that the All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) has developed concrete, practical tools on risk assessment and management in collaboration with the ILO, and has already launched its programme of action. Similarly, the China Enterprises Confederation (CEC) and ILO SCORE have also collaborated to train trainers and consultants, who in turn provide their technical services to enterprises including SMEs.

Let me reassure you that the ILO will continue to support the Chinese government and the social partners in your endeavour. I encourage all stakeholders to work together to develop a national policy on establishing workplace risk assessment and control systems, for example through an enterprise work safety committee composed of enterprise management, engineers and workers’ representatives.

In the coming days, the Forum has organized panel and technical sessions to address workplace compliance, risk assessment and control as well as major hazards control, and to exchange experiences and good practices. I believe that this Forum will offer a good opportunity to reinforce our networks and commitment to international and regional cooperation. It also serves our joint efforts for ensuring safe and healthy workplaces, in the pursuit of Decent Work for all women and men.

If you will indulge me, I would like to quote a Chinese proverb: “An oil lamp becomes brighter after trimming, a truth becomes clearer after being discussed.” I hope the discussions you will have at this 8th China International Forum on Work Safety – and the social dialogue that lies at the heart of the ILO -- will make the truth clearer on these vital safety and health issues.

Thank you.