Chernobyl 20 years after: From disaster, breeding a new safety culture

When the Reactor No. 4 at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine exploded on the night of 26 April 1986, workers bore the full brunt of the blast, many losing their health, homes, jobs and even their lives. Since then, significant progress has been made in the development of safety and health at work, but the last chapter of the world's worst civilian nuclear disaster has yet to be written, says ILO SafeWork specialist Shengli Niu in an interview with ILO Online.

Article | 26 April 2006

ILO Online: The Chernobyl accident has generated much interest in terms of its immediate effects. But how has it influenced occupational health and safety thinking worldwide?

Shengli Niu: Chernobyl contributed quite significantly to the development of safety and health at work, not only with respect to directly relevant issues such as radiation protection. A whole "safety culture" concept arose after the Chernobyl accident, with strong support from the ILO. For example, in 2003, we developed a global strategy for occupational safety and health at work which was adopted by the International Labour Conference. This strategy emphasizes a safety culture based on prevention and workers' participation. Lessons learned from Chernobyl not only had an impact on nuclear industries but also on other sectors, and launched a virtuous circle of improvements in all of them.

ILO Online: Can you give us a concrete example of Chernobyl's impact on the establishment of this new safety culture?

Shengli Niu: Chernobyl had a strong impact from a legal point of view. Before, many countries did not have laws and regulations to protect the workforce and the population, and, even more important, to prevent this kind of accident. After Chernobyl they adopted regulations on nuclear safety, accidents, assistance, etc. At the same time, the ILO and other international agencies adopted international standards and safety guidelines, including the International Basic Safety Standards for Protection against Ionizing Radiation and for the Safety of Radiation Sources (BSS-1996) and, in cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and other international organizations, issued a publication in 2002 on "Preparedness and response for a nuclear and radiological emergency". The ILO's Radiation Protection Convention, 1960 (No. 115) was already adopted long before Chernobyl. Furthermore, the ILO adopted Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) Guidelines on OSH Management Systems in 2001.

ILO Online: What has been the impact of these measures?

Shengli Niu: A significant number of countries adopted safety rules in relation to radiation and basic safety standards on a voluntarily basis. We have seen not only more regulations adopted at the national level since 1986 but also that the enforcement of these rules has been strengthened, which means that the safety record has greatly improved.

ILO Online: What are the main lessons learned from the disaster?

Shengli Niu: There are two key factors that contributed to the disaster, and these almost always contribute to injuries and diseases at work: first, a poor or non-existing occupational safety and health management system and, second, an inadequate design and technical process which was inherently unsafe. As a result of the Chernobyl accident, the design process of nuclear plants and their operations have been controlled quite differently thereafter by law enforcement and inspection systems in market economies.

Another major lesson learned refers to the need to involve workers in safety processes in terms of training, education, information and participation. It is necessary to emphasize the cooperation between employers and operators as in many cases the employers are not the operators. So we have to reinforce cooperation between the different stakeholders and make sure that everybody takes responsibility. This is really important.

ILO Online: In what areas does progress remain elusive?

Shengli Niu: It depends on the country and the sector of industry. Generally speaking, education and training in the field of safety and radiation protection are still an important challenge because workers need to know the risks they are exposed to, and they also must be aware of measures they can take to protect themselves. Then, employers and operators will have to make sure that all safety measures are in place and properly implemented. After that, national authorities should ensure the enforcement of relevant legislation. There is still space for improvements in terms of a more integrated approach based on close cooperation between the ILO's three partner groups: governments, employers and workers. Significant progress has been made over the last 20 years, but the last chapter of Chernobyl still remains to be written.

For further information, please go to the ILO website at /public/english/protection/safework/cis/oshworld/news/nuclear.htm