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Safety and health at work

Questions and answers on Occupational Safety and Health in times of economic crisis

With credit barely flowing and global demand on a downward slide, enterprises around the world are struggling to cope with the global economic crisis. Meanwhile, the numbers of unemployed and working poor are rising. How is the crisis affecting working conditions? For this year’s World Day for Safety and Health at Work (28 April), ILO Online asks Dr. Sameera Al-Tuwaijiri, Director of the ILO’s Safe Work Programme, how the crisis may impact on the health and safety of workers.

Article | 27 April 2009

How is the financial and economic crisis affecting occupational health and safety standards?

First of all, let’s remember that even before the current crisis, globalization had already brought about major changes to workplaces worldwide. Privatization, industrial restructuring, new forms of work organization, the break-up of larger state enterprises and the proliferation of small enterprises – to name just a few of these changes – directly affected employment, industrial relations and, consequently, occupational safety and health (OSH) standards. Now the global financial crisis has become a factor of concern for the health and safety of workers around the world. On the one hand, workers have to deal with the fear and stress of losing their jobs. At the same time, downsizing production, changing working-time patterns and/or increasing job demands simply to stay in business may have a negative impact. In some cases, we might expect a reduction in resources allocated to safety and health. Enforcement agencies, labour inspectorates and occupational safety and health services may also have to operate with limited resources. The result could be a sharp rise in work accidents, injuries and fatalities and work-related stress.

Do all workers in all workplaces face the same risks? Or are some more at risk than others?

No workplace is immune or free from occupational diseases and accidents. But some are more at risk than others. Micro enterprises in the informal sector – where economic survival is the first priority – tend to lack resources and know-how on OSH management. If they weren’t thinking about OSH issues before the crisis, it’s unlikely they will start doing so now. If more workers take on precarious work and jobs in the informal economy, it stands to reason that there may be more exposures to occupational hazards and risks. Migrants may be more affected than local workers as they are often found in more precarious situations. It is worth pointing out here that the potential impact on the health of workers goes beyond the victims of downsizing or the remaining workers. It also affects workers’ families and the communities where restructuring occurs.

What do you say to the argument that it is better for a company and its workers to concentrate on its own survival, even if there are some reductions in OSH spending?

We would say that this kind of approach will surely backfire in the future. While it is true that the countries should concentrate at the present time on the restoration of sustainable productivity and equity, they need to do this with full respect for labour standards, including those related to occupational safety and health. Only this will ensure that people live socially and economically productive lives. The long-term business viability of enterprises increasingly depends not only on their productivity but also on meeting the legal requirements and social expectations that come with their roles as corporate citizens of the local and international community. This becomes particularly evident in the context of the present financial crisis.

What is the ILO’s message regarding OSH during these times of economic hardship?

That everyone has the right to a safe and healthy working environment. That is what the Decent Work Agenda says and what we deeply believe in. This is especially true in a time of crisis. Social protection should be preserved for the millions of people who have lost, are about to lose or will in the future lose their jobs. Social protection should also be retained for those working extra shifts and overtime to compensate for the diminishing workforce and the increasing workload. The crisis should not be an excuse to lessen decent working conditions, but an opportunity to promote them.