World Day for Safety and Health at Work on 28 April: Interview with Dr Ahmed Khalef

Press release | 28 April 2011

ACTRAV INFO: This year, the theme of the World Day for Safety and Health at Work is “the implementation of an Occupational Safety and Health Management System (OSHMS) as a tool for continual improvement in the prevention of workplace incidents and accidents.” Why do you think this topic was chosen?

Dr Ahmed Khalef: I think the answer to that is simple. Management entails monitoring, and that should be the case both for safety at work and for the working activity. The main aim is the primary prevention of work accidents and of occupational and/or work-related illnesses. As we can see, good monitoring of health and safety at work cannot be achieved without a robust system for managing it.

ACTRAV INFO: The 2011 report published by the ILO on the Occupational Safety and Health Management System (OSHMS) stresses the need for real worker involvement, as part of social dialogue. Where exactly are we on this issue at the workplace level?

Dr Ahmed Khalef: The real actors, and the heart of the problem, are to be found at the level of the workplace. And the workplace is simply a microcosm of society as a whole. Quite obviously, the people who ought to be involved are those directly concerned, as they are the real actors here. And their elected trade union representatives must play a key role. But that in itself is not enough. The other union bodies have to follow through. A strong international trade union movement, aware of what is at stake, is needed in order to guarantee the inalienable right to a healthy, safe job. Health and safety at work must be at the heart of the movement’s priorities at both the national and the international levels.

ACTRAV INFO: Recently, an ACTRAV analysis revealed that “work kills more people than war”, with 6,000 workplace victims per day. What are the dangers facing today’s workers?

Dr Ahmed Khalef: That’s right. That was an analysis carried out together with my colleague and friend Luc Demaret, for the same occasion as this one. First of all, let me assure you that those figures are more topical than ever. There is still one death every 15 seconds. So 6,000 per day and about 2.2 millions victims each year. Work does kill more than war, and it wounds and mutilates too. There’s suffering in work, suffering through work, both within the workplace and beyond – problems at work have an impact on workers’ whole lives. And of course, the suffering is both physical and psychological. As a matter of fact, almost 270 million accidents are recorded each year, of which 350,000 are fatal. Many of these dramas are avoidable, the International Labour Organization says. And I should add that the situation is certainly not improving. Quite the reverse – particularly in Third World countries.

ACTRAV INFO: Could it be said that work-related pathologies exist today?

Dr Ahmed Khalef: The existence of work-related pathologies is glaringly obvious. I think you must mean “new work-related pathologies”. These days, any kind of work may have an underlying pathology. The important thing is to ensure the necessary protection, so as to prevent any deterioration of the worker’s physical and/or mental state. That goes for the modern work-related pathologies, from musculoskeletal disorders to burn-out or even suicide. Stress is also a major factor that affects very many workers. There are numerous examples of that. Nor should we forget the health needs in Africa and elsewhere in the so-called developing world. Those needs are truly cruel. The ravages caused by HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria and other diseases linked to poverty and misery are perfect illustrations of that. And we should bear in mind that, just as in the case of social protection, the international financial institutions advocate the dismantlement of health-related public services.

ACTRAV INFO: Do you think that better social protection for workers is the way to ensure safety and health at work?

Dr Ahmed Khalef: Social protection is more than the way to do it. It’s the very essence of the matter – and it’s a right. I’m telling you: in today’s world of wildcat globalization and injustice, it’s important to put social issues on the same footing as financial and economic concerns. So social matters have to be given the status of what are now called the “fundamentals” or the “main balances”. That’s essential to the pursuit of this aim. Today, fewer than one person in 10 on this planet is covered by social protection … And paradoxically, while some look enviously at the present model which was won through tough struggles by the labour movement, that model is now under threat. Not only due to financial problems, which must of course be rigorously analysed, but first and foremost because of ideological choices and the thirst for markets and profits. Social protection was built at the national level. Today, it has to meet the challenge of globalization. Real social protection – and not just the safety net that some would be content with – real social protection would go a long way towards calming people’s anxieties.

ACTRAV INFO: There are now a whole series of ILO Conventions and Recommendations on safety and health at work. What solutions do you envisage to facilitate their application in practice by member States?

Dr Ahmed Khalef: These are the issues I’ve already touched upon. The Workers’ group within the ILO’s Governing Body need to be very vigilant on this. They must see to it that issues of worker health, safety and well-being are raised time and time again, so encouraging countries first to ratify, and then to apply the standards that they themselves have set. It’s also quite obvious that this same fight has to begin at the workplace level, then at the sectoral and national levels, before reaching the international level.

ACTRAV INFO: A final question. A meeting is to be held in Turkey in September 2011 on the topic of “Building a Culture of Prevention for a Healthy and Safe Future”. Are you optimistic about improving workers’ living conditions?

Dr Ahmed Khalef: The theme is entirely apt and appropriate. Obviously, our major concern is to avoid any blurring of the line between “safety” and “security”. For us, prevention comes first, and there must be a culture of prevention that is accepted by everybody. And the old saying that “prevention is better than cure” takes on its full significance here. We do need rapid implementation in order to secure at least some improvement in working conditions, but also to protect the immediate working environment and hence the environment at large. As to being an optimist or not, I think one always should be. But that doesn’t mean just believing that everything is all right. The workers are still paying the heaviest price, because their health and their lives are at stake here. We must constantly fight for improvements, and now more than ever the trade union movement, which represents the workers’ interests, is called upon to play its part.

For more information, contact:

Dr. Ahmed KHALEF
Specialist in workers’activities
Tel: +41 22 799 70 87
Email: khalefa[at]ilo[dot]org