Hurricane force: As experts debate global job safety, nature provides a lesson in the unexpected

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, tens of thousands of rescue workers faced life-threatening dangers while trying to save the sick and stranded in the US Gulf Coast region. The natural disaster provided an object lesson for safety experts in Orlando at the XVIIth World Congress on Safety and Health at Work while they took on the larger issue of work-related accidents and illnesses worldwide, a growing problem the ILO says can be solved. ILO's Katherine Lomasney reports.

ORLANDO, Florida - Weeks after Katrina turned New Orleans into a modern-day Atlantis, rescue teams still had one thing on their minds: saving the stranded, sick and helpless who managed to hang on. It was a region in shambles, and the city and its surrounding areas were transformed into a cauldron of disease, pollution and countless other dangers.

"With the vast number of workers involved in the clean-up, 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 communities in the devastated regions is one of our highest priorities," said Elaine Chao, US Secretary of Labor, at the time.

The US Department of Labor sent more than a hundred hurricane response workers from its Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) department to the affected areas to advise employers and workers involved in the clean-up and recovery operations on protective equipment and other safety measures. They also offered information on the types of dangers workers would encounter, such as downed power lines, home and building damage, dangerous animals and flood water. As a result, OSHA workers intervened in 5,000 situations where some 10,500 workers could have been seriously injured.

But many workers worldwide who face dangers on the job don't receive adequate safety training, equipment and support and, as a result, often lose their lives. Under the banner of Prevention in a Globalized World - Success Through Partnerships, this year's XVIIth World Congress on Safety and Health at Work convened in Orlando, Florida during September to address the worldwide toll of work-related accidents and the growing need for strategies to prevent them.

Global toll of accidents and disease

The words "better safe than sorry" take on critical importance when one considers the cost of lost lives, crippled bodies and forgone profits that are the result of dangerous workplaces. In a new report ( Note 1) issued for the Congress, the ILO estimates that at least 5,000 people die every day, or roughly 2.2 million people each year, as a result of work-related accidents and illnesses. And that is likely an underestimate due to poor reporting practices, especially in rapidly developing countries in Asia.

"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," said ILO Director-General Juan Somavia in advance of the World Congress. "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."

When looking at the bigger picture of injuries sustained and illnesses developed on the job, the number is far greater - the ILO estimates that 270 million work-related accidents occur each year that cause more than three days of absence from work, in addition to 160 million work-related cases of illness.

The report said that men in particular are at risk of dying at working age (below 65), while women suffer more from work-related communicable psychosocial factors and long-term musculo-skeletal disorders. In several industrialized 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."

When asked what must be done to avoid the many accidents and illnesses for workers throughout the world, Takala said it would take surprisingly little. "Practically all accidents can be eliminated by a set of known measures," he said in an interview with ILO Online. "Many companies and some governments have already adopted zero accident targets. If all ILO member States used the best accident prevention strategies and practices that are already in place and easily available, some 300,000 deaths out of 360,000 and some 200 million accidents out of 260 million could be prevented, not to mention the savings in compensation payments and other economic benefits."

Opportunity for collaboration

More than 3,000 health and safety professionals from government, labour and industry organizations representing 110 countries attended the five-day event in Orlando, which was organized by the ILO, the International Social Security Association (ISSA) and the US National Safety Council. The event offered an opportunity for thought-leaders and safety experts to exchange practical and technical experience.

The safety and health of rescue workers involved in recovery efforts in the US Gulf Coast region were never far from the thoughts of presenters and participants. In her address, US Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao thanked safety and health professionals who answered the call to aid storm survivors.

One of the Congress highlights was the speech given by ISSA president Corazon de la Paz during the opening ceremony, in which she emphasized the need for global efforts to prevent work-related illnesses such as cancer from asbestos and the value of partnerships in both the public and private sectors of commerce and production. "Almost 80 per cent of the world's population is working without a safety net," she said. "In this world, a mangled hand on the assembly line all too often results in the devastation of entire families."

De la Paz warned that continued production and use of asbestos will cause nearly 500,000 cancer deaths in Western Europe by 2029. "The use of asbestos inevitably leads to reduced quality of life and premature death and imposes a burden on a country's economy for over 30 years," she said.

Experts spoke on the importance of prevention systems, laws, regulations and means of enforcement at all levels of business, with a management cycle that ensures continuous monitoring and improvement. Also, once safety and health policies are developed, strategies toward success must be put in place. Leadership is essential to implementing successful prevention strategies, which need to be supported by effective information, training and education. Following the World Congress, these and other key safety and health messages were compiled by safety professionals, employers and workers in both the public and private sectors, policy makers and administrators into a vision statement, Today's value for tomorrow's world.

Above all, participants were urged to speak with decision-makers in their respective countries to help raise awareness of the growing problem and the need for immediate action. Alan McMillan, National Safety Council president and CEO and secretariat for the 2005 World Congress, said the situation could be improved substantially if participants worked to secure top management's commitment to safety and health, involve employees in developing a safety culture and integrate safety and health fully into normal business planning and operation.

The ILO's Takala cited awareness as one of the major hurdles to substantially improving health and safety for workers and preventing accidents worldwide. "The media refer a lot to the 500,000 people dying in war every year, but the more than two million people dying at work are hardly noticed - not to mention the other victims who suffer from the consequences of occupational accidents and long-term diseases," he said. "The World Congress is an occasion to highlight the importance of the issue: this is not only a meeting for experts. We also want the media and decision-makers to put these problems much higher on the political agenda than in the past."

ILO safety film lauded at Congress

Judged against an original pool of 135 films, Accidents Don't Have to Happen was shown during the Congress among 66 other films from 19 countries. It was chosen by a jury of representatives from eight countries.

"Film is a potentially powerful form of communication in the developing world and we applaud the work of the ILO in this field," said Peter Rimmer, International Film Festival Jury chairman during the awards ceremony. " Accidents Don't Have to Happen respects the different cultures and the different ways of working, and identifies not only the problems but also some of the solutions to safe working in construction."

Filmed in Chhattisgarh in central India, the video features dramatization of possible accidents that often happen on construction sites. It offers interviews with a Bhilai Steel Plant safety officer who helped to reduce accidents on his construction site and a doctor who talks about the many health risks construction workers face on the job. The Indian subcontinent has an estimated 30 million construction workers and often poor conditions of safety and health on construction sites.

Although originally made for workers' organizations, the film was subsequently distributed to contractors at a seminar in Delhi organized by the Construction Industry Development Council (CIDC), an organization representing contractors and government clients of the construction industry. The film was so popular that the CIDC Director-General requested 40,000 copies for distribution within CIDC.

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