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XVIIth World Congress on Occupational Safety and Health Hitting Close to Home: Workplace Safety Experts to meet in the aftermath of Katrina

The XVIIth World Congress on Occupational Safety and Health that gets underway in Orlando, Florida this week will focus on the plight of workers worldwide who die or become ill due to work-related causes. But in the aftermath of the devastating Katrina hurricane, the implicit physical and emotional dangers faced by rescue and recovery workers on the ground several hundred miles from here is expected to provide a sobering perspective at the Congress. ILO on line reports.

Article | 20 September 2005

ORLANDO, Florida (ILO on line) - Even weeks after Katrina turned New Orleans into a modern-day Atlantis, rescue and recovery teams had one thing on their minds: saving the stranded, sick, and helpless who managed to hang on. And as the more than 1 million displaced people from 90,000 square miles of devastated land begin to rebuild their lives, the job of rescue and recovery workers is far from finished.

It is a region in shambles. The waters of Lake Pontchartrain that poured into New Orleans have become a cauldron of disease and pollution. The water is rife with human remains, dangerous debris, human waste, and downed electrical wires. E. coli bacteria exceeds safe levels in the water by ten times; lead levels also are at dangerous readings.

"With the vast number of workers involved in the cleanup, recovery and rebuilding efforts along the Gulf Coast, it is important to ensure that workers are operating safely to prevent unnecessary injuries. The safety and health of those working to rebuild the communities in the devastated regions is one of our highest priorities", said Elaine Chao, U.S. Secretary of Labor.

Just a few hundred miles east, the aftermath of Katrina is expected to sharpen the discussions on these and other issues during the XVIIth World Congress for Safety and Health at Work being held here from September 18 to 22. Although the Congress has a global focus, this time the issues have hit close to home for many of the participants who will be discussing not just the threats workers face in disaster recoveries such as Katrina and the Tsunami in South-East Asia, but also more elusive issues like globalization.

The monumental nature of the disaster has brought tens of thousands of workers -military, government or private sector - face to face with some of the most extreme conditions that can threaten the lives and health of people on the job. In addition to the 43,000 National Guard and US military troops on the ground, more than 17,000 volunteer medical personnel have registered with U.S. Health and Human Services alone. Workers from other organizations, both from the private sector as well as donor and aid agencies, face similar challenges.

Countless precautions need to be considered for the safety and health of rescue and recovery workers, such as adequate protective equipment, training, vaccinations, and monitoring for breaks to avoid burnout. In addition, workers are vulnerable to emotional dangers like post-traumatic stress disorder. They need counseling to deal with the emotional toll; many relief workers are victims of the storm as well.

"The vast scale of the disaster brought on by Hurricane Katrina defies belief", said Juan Somavia, Director-General of Geneva-based International Labour Organization (ILO) in a statement issued Friday. "We have a special thought for so many workers who have lost their lives or their loved ones, or who have seen their means of livelihood destroyed. We also salute the heroic efforts of those who are bringing relief and hope back to the survivors of this calamity. As reconstruction proceeds, the ILO stands ready to put our experience and capacities to work in responding to the recovery and reconstruction effort in any appropriate way."

Global toll of accidents and disease

According to a new report ( Note 1) issued by the ILO for the Congress, some 2.2 million people die of work-related accidents and diseases each year, and this number may be vastly under-estimated. On average, some 5,000 or more women and men lose their lives each day because of on-the-job risks.

"There has been progress on many fronts in the world of work, but work-related deaths, accidents and diseases are still major causes for concern", Mr. Somavia said. "Among the goals for this World Congress is to build on existing international safety benchmarks and strengthen global partnerships to ensure 21st Century work is also 21st Century safe."

Men, in particular, are at risk of dying at working age (below 65), while women suffer more from work-related communicable diseases, psycho-social factors and long-term musculo-skeletal disorders. In several industrial countries, more than half of the retirements are based on early retirements and disability pensions rather than workers reaching the normal retirement age. While not all factors behind these trends are directly caused by work, the workplace is in a key position for prevention and maintaining work ability through its management system.

"The sad truth is that in some parts of the world, many workers will probably die for lack of an adequate safety culture", said Jukka Takala, Director of the ILO's SafeWork Programme. "This is a heavy price to pay for uncontrolled development. We must act swiftly to reverse this trend."

Collaboration is the key

The focus of the 2005 World Congress is Prevention in a Globalized World - Success through Partnerships. Because of "the increasing globalization that is taking place among the economies of the world, there will be more and more emphasis on collaboration in the future", said K.C. Gupta, Director-General of the National Safety Council of India. "Collaboration is the key", he said.

More than 3,000 professionals from government, labour, and industry organizations from around the world are expected to attend the five-day event. At World Congress, attendees "can learn lessons from the advanced experience and knowledge of [other] safety councils", said Gupta, whose organization played an important role in organizing the XIIIth World Congress in India in 1993.

It is the 50th anniversary of the first World Congress that convened in 1955 in Rome. It is the first time this Congress will meet in the United States and is only the second time it has been in North America. The National Safety Council and other U.S. organizations began working with the ILO and the International Social Security Association (ISSA) in 1999 to bring World Congress to the United States. Organizers formally accepted the offer to host the event in 2001.

"This event will mark the culmination of a number of collaborative activities over the past four years aimed at enhancing the safety and health of workers around the world", said Alan McMillan, President and CEO of the National Safety Council which is the Secretariat for the 2005 World Congress. "As populations grow and economies develop, millions throughout the world are taking on new jobs and new risks like never before. Our ultimate goal is to make the world's workplaces safe and healthy for workers in every country and in every occupation. Safety and health cannot remain on the back burner as an option in doing business."

Not only will the XVIIth World Congress for Safety and Health at Work provide the opportunity for thought-leaders to exchange practical and technical experience, but it will also help to bring the issue of occupational safety and health, and the many problems left to be resolved, to the fore.

Note 1 - Decent Work - Safe Work, ILO Introductory Report to the XVIIth World Congress on Safety and Health at Work, Orlando, USA.