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Making work a safer place

Money talks, but does it think? Merging thoughtful workplace practices and the bottom-line is one of the goals of the Global Compact launched in 2000 by the United Nations. The Compact seeks to meet the challenges of globalization and create a more stable and inclusive world economy by embedding UN values in private sector strategies. Now, the ILO Safe Work Programme has joined the Compact to help promote a new health and safety culture at work. German journalist Anne Sieger reports.

Article | 11 February 2004

DUSSELDORF, Germany - A new ILO project, to be launched in March 2004, draws attention to the impact multi-national companies can have on safety and health at work, far beyond their own corporate walls. Jointly organized by the ILO and the Global Compact, it includes car manufacturer Volkswagen and GTZ, the German Government's development agency. Its purpose is to develop and implement national safe work programmes, including health and safety standards.

The project will involve staff within Volkswagen, as well as its suppliers in Mexico, South Africa and Brazil. After a first phase of inventory and analysis of each country's specific safety problems, the results will be translated into a comprehensive plan of action. Implementation will be monitored by local labour inspectors - staff trained by the ILO.

"Such initiatives can have an enormous impact", says Gerd Albracht, Senior Occupational Health and Safety Specialist of the ILO Safe Work Programme. "The supply chain involves a lot of sub-contractors. If safety and health practices can be extended to those smaller business entities, this can have a positive effect on thousands of workers."

And the ILO expects another positive side effect: "The project should be an incentive to other multinationals, who do not want to be left behind, to improve their health and safety standards. We expect a chain reaction", says Albracht.

World media attention regularly focuses on dramatic health and safety incidents at work. In October 2003, some 50 workers were trapped in a coalmine in southern Russia for days as a result of underground flooding. Eventually, most of the pit workers were rescued alive, but one died in the tunnel and another is still missing. A lack of security measures was put in question.

But the overwhelming majority of workplace accidents occur unnoticed. "Worldwide some 5,000 workers die every day, especially in agriculture, mining and construction", says Gerd Albracht. "There is a clear deficit as far as the promotion of safety and health at work is concerned".

In October 2003, this deficiency was the focus of a meeting in Düsseldorf, the first to be organized by the Global Compact and the ILO to shine new light on health and safety culture in businesses worldwide. According to Albracht, the legal and practical level of health and safety protection is low in many countries, especially in the developing world. "Implementing preventive measures is difficult in companies where social protection simply does not exist", he says. "It is particularly challenging to reach businesses in the informal economy, where about 80 per cent of the people are working."

"All over the world, health and safety quality varies considerably", he says. "However, even in countries with a very high number of work accidents, many companies have no prevention policies at all while some enterprises handle health and safety issues in an exemplary way."

The Global Compact-ILO approach is designed to foster a change in business policies regarding safety and health. Government stakeholders, multi-national companies, policy-makers in employers' organizations and trade unions are being urged to develop a new, more decent working environment. New standards should help reduce accidents and increase productivity and employability.

Underlying this approach is the concept of "Corporate Social Responsibility" (CSR).

Good health is good business

CSR posits that companies should integrate social and environmental concerns in daily business operations, including a sustainable health and security strategy at the workplace.

"Money talks but it doesn't think", says Manfred Reindl, member of the Executive Board of RWE Rhein-Ruhr, a German energy supplier. With respect to CSR, the company was not unprepared when it committed itself to the Global Compact at the Düsseldorf Conference. Flat hierarchies, regular free health checks for employees and their families, as well as scientifically controlled training for workers with physically demanding jobs are some of the measures which RWE introduced over the last three years to keep its staff healthy.

Experience has shown that the concept is economically sound. "CSR is a concept that will convince any finance manager", emphasizes Reindl. "Three years ago sick-leave rate stood at five per cent. With 6,000 employees, this meant that every day 300 people would not come to work. Today, sick leave has gone down to three per cent. The company saved about nine million euros."

Global statistics confirm the urgent need to act. According to the ILO, work-related illnesses, injuries and deaths cost some four per cent of the annual global gross domestic product (GDP), or some 1,250,000 million U.S. Dollars ($1.25 trillion). In addition, further costs are borne by society due to work-related accidents and diseases: Early retirements, absenteeism, unemployment, and poverty.

"Working safely out of poverty should be a prerequisite for sustainable strategies", says Assane Diop, ILO Executive Director for Social Protection. "Hazardous work takes its toll on the health of workers and on productivity."

From broken fingers to bruised souls

Safety and health policies must be adapted to local circumstances and demands. While most developing and threshold countries tend to focus on basic physical health risks and HIV/AIDS prevention, priorities in most developed countries, including Germany, have changed.

Explains Reindl: "In the past employers were concerned about broken fingers. Today, it is bruised souls we have to deal with." Companies have only recently started to discern and grasp the effects of mental distress. Staff also face the challenges posed by globalization:

"Due to the enormous changes that have been taking place in the energy sector since 1998, fewer employees are confronted with more work", says Reindl of his experience at RWE Rhein-Ruhr. "We cannot afford to ignore these circumstances and need to concentrate our preventive measures on the psychological aspects."

The weight of an ever-growing responsibility in an increasingly faster moving business world provokes anxiety, especially among the younger colleagues. "They worry about losing their jobs and get frustrated about changing tasks or being separated from their usual colleagues", says Reindl. "It is very difficult to quantify these effects, but there are estimates that up to 60 per cent of the employees' work efficiency is lost through this kind of stress factor." Again, the economic impact is considerable.

Be the challenges physical or psychological in nature, government stakeholders, policy makers and especially private companies will have to react. "Although a legislative framework is important, it is really the multi-nationals that have the biggest impact, far beyond their own corporate walls", the ILO's Albracht says.

The ILO plays a central role in promoting safety and health at work and within the UN Global Compact. For further information: www.ilo.org/safework and www.unglobalcompact.org The Conference CD-ROM on "Health and Safety Culture, Sustainable Development through Responsible Corporate Citizenship/CSR" will be published in March and can be obtained from the ILO SafeWork secretariat by e-mail: safework@ilo.org