World Day for Safety and Health 2007: Making decent work a reality: improving health and safety at suppliers

270 million accidents at work happen every year according to ILO estimates – 355,000 of which are fatal. The mortality rate in developing countries is five to seven times higher than in industrialised nations.

Article | 27 April 2007

270 million accidents at work happen every year according to ILO estimates - 355,000 of which are fatal. The mortality rate in developing countries is five to seven times higher than in industrialised nations. The ILO promotes World Day for Safety and Health at Work as part of an international campaign to promote safe, healthy, and decent work (Note 1). ILO Online reports from Germany where car manufacturer Volkswagen has joined the ILO's Safework programme in promoting safety and health at work in threshold countries - not so much to help its own employees but to help those working as its suppliers worldwide.

WOLFSBURG, Germany (ILO Online) - Elke Sebold-Tanski knows all about the dangers to safety and health at work. As an engineer employed by Volkswagen, her job is to ensure that valid health and safety standards are adopted and complied with through out the German car company's worldwide facilities and workforce of 320,000.

"We notice things which people on site have simply become used to", she says.

But the car maker doesn't think its responsibility for occupational safety and health stops at its gates and doesn't simply ignore the fate of those employed at thousands of suppliers and sub-suppliers around the world. One of the major problems faced by this and other multinational giants is that safety at work is a low priority in threshold countries in particular.

"Lack of resources and often simply ignorance frequently lead to problems at small to medium-sized enterprises", Ms. Sebold-Tanski says. "They need our support."

Having said that, even a global player like VW would be overwhelmed without the support of others. So it participates in an international project with the rather lengthy title of "Global Compact and Establishing a Health and Safety Culture" (within the overall "SafeWork" programme), along with the ILO and the GTZ, Germany's technical cooperation agency.

The project's goal is to improve labour protection in Brazil, Mexico and South Africa - regions where VW already demonstrates a high commitment to occupational safety and health. Under the concept, the ILO drafts national action plans and trains labour inspectors, while the GTZ takes on task of implementation monitoring. Volkswagen has selected 29 plants for the project, 13 in Mexico, 8 in Brazil and 8 in South Africa. Most of them are smaller suppliers with fewer than 50 staff.

Elke Sebold-Tanski is off to South Africa. Her primary role when arriving at suppliers is to educate them. She distributes checklists and questionnaires advising the small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) of what they can expect. "Our role is not that of policing but to work together to identify weaknesses and come up with solutions", emphasises Ms. Sebold-Tanski.

She returns to the same plant a day later. At that time she is joined by a team comprising another health and safety expert, a colleague from quality assurance, a national coordinator and two government labour inspectors with whom she goes through each of the plants in short order.

A whole month is spent checking, asking, assessing and advising. Two days for each plant. The follow-up talks are not only with the management but also with the unions and employees: "They know their workplace best, and can help identify hazards which a manager would never notice", says Ms. Sebold-Tanski.

The suppliers themselves are very much aware that investments in safety at work are worthwhile for their own sake. Says Ms. Sebold-Tanski: "The plants have to realise that safety at work complements productivity."

"Accidents do not go with the job"

For the German car manufacturer, safety and health begins at home. The first Group health and safety conference was organised in the year 2000, attended by all European locations. More than 50 experts from management and works councils met in Wolfsburg to improve safety at work worldwide. The foundation stone was laid for closer cooperation between all occupational safety experts within the Volkswagen Group.

As a result of the efforts to strengthen this cooperation and to pursue the overall goal of creating safer and healthier workplaces the Volkswagen Group signed in 2004 a special agreement with the Groups Global Works Council and the International Metalworkers' Federation. Volkswagen's purpose in providing this agreement is to document the fundamental principles and obligations for occupational safety for the countries and regions represented in Volkswagen's Group Global Works Council.

In fact the number of work accidents at VW has fallen steadily and substantially over the last 25 years - in 2004, the rate was 5.2 accidents at work per million hours worked. Meanwhile more than 100,000 staff members took part in the in-house occupational safety campaign entitled "Self-Assuredly-safe" which seeks to engender more self-responsibility for safety at work.

"Accidents do not go with the job. Experience shows that most accidents are preventable. Sound prevention, supported by appropriate reporting and inspection practices and guided by ILO Conventions, Recommendations and Codes of Practice on occupational safety and health, needs to be implemented systematically at the national and enterprise level", explains Dr. Sameera Maziadi Al-Tuwaijri, Director of the ILO's Safework programme.

The ILO has developed such a systematic approach in a new Convention adopted by the International Labour Conference in June 2006. The Promotional Framework for Occupational Safety and Health Convention, 2006 (No. 187) establishes a framework within which occupational safety and health can be promoted.

Its objective is to foster political commitments to develop, in a tripartite context, national strategies to promote continuous improvement of occupational safety and health to prevent occupational injuries, diseases and deaths; to take active steps towards achieving progressively a safe and healthy working environment; and to periodically consider what measures could be taken to ratify relevant occupational safety and health Conventions of the ILO.

Together with the ILO Global Strategy on Occupational Safety and Health, adopted by the International Labour Conference in 2003, this new Convention is a key tool in reducing work-related accidents and ill-health and thus contributing to the realization of the ILO's Decent Work Agenda.

"On 28 April this year, many thousands of representatives of governments, employers and workers will be celebrating the ILO's World Day for Safety and Health at Work. They will be considering how to make their contribution to the Decent Work Agenda... one course of action open to all is to promote the ratification of the new Promotional Framework for Occupational Safety and Health Convention, 2006 (No. 187) and other ILO standards related to occupational safety and health", concludes Dr. Sameera Maziadi Al-Tuwaijri.

For more information, please see the web page "Better Safety and Health for Suppliers".

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Note 1 - Safe and healthy workplaces. Making decent work a reality, The ILO Report for World Day for Safety and Health at Work, International Labour Office, Geneva, 2007.