PHNOM PENH - In the safety conscious worlds of Europe, the United States or Australasia, workers would not think of going onto a building site without safety equipment as basic as hard hats. But in countries such as Cambodia, where construction workers earn US$1.50 a day and there are no laws compelling enterprises to supply safety measures, this is not second nature.
Workers often stumble without hard hats or protective shoes or clothing through mazes of bare electrical wires, loose cables and dust. They scale walls without harnesses, using ill-maintained or antiquated equipment they have received little training as to how to use. First aid kits or health and safety inspections are almost unknown.
"Before I took an International Labour Organization training course, I never thought about it. No one does unless they are educated about the risks and easy ways to make them smaller," says Sok Sovann, President of the Cambodian National Federation of Building and Wood Workers.
Most of Cambodia's population call themselves farmers, but in a subsistence culture where a bad season or illness in the family can mean borrowing money and cash is hard to come by, many leave their rural villages to seek labouring work in the big cities, and few are aware of their rights or of the risks when they find temporary work on construction sites.
The ILO celebrates World Day for Safety and Health at Work each year on April 28. The initiative is an important one, and the emphasis a vital one when it is taken into account how many lives are needlessly lost or impaired each year due to work-related accidents. The ILO estimates that each day, an average of 5,000 people die as a result of work-related accidents or diseases globally, making a total of between 2 and 2.3 million work-related deaths a year. Of this figure, there are about 350,000 fatal accidents and between 1.7 and 2 million fatal diseases.
On top of that, the ILO estimates that the world's workers annually suffer from approximately 270 million occupational accidents that lead to absences from work for more than three days, and some 160 million non-fatal diseases. Employers and governments also have an incentive, with approximately four per cent of the world's gross domestic product lost due to the costs of injury, death and disease through absence from work, sickness treatment, disability and survivor benefit.
"The global number of accidents and diseases in the construction industry is very difficult to quantify, as statistical information is not available for many countries, and statistical data on occupational diseases is even more difficult to obtain. What is clear, however, is that the construction industry is significantly more hazardous than most other economic sectors", says Jukka Takala, head of the ILO's Safework programme.
So when Cambodians who play such a key role in the construction industry as Sok Sovann take a safety-training course with a view to training others in the area, it spells an important step forward for the nation.
"Most of it is as simple as not leaving things like cables on the floor where people can fall over them, being aware when spraying chemicals and paints that may be dangerous and knowing when tools they are using have maybe not been properly maintained and how it might harm them", says Sovann.
"We swapped a lot of amusing stories between ourselves during the course last month. Just being able to do that means we are more aware. The main idea of the training is to educate and make us more aware so we understand a little better the dangers of where we work every day", he says. "For instance, after the training they all understood they had to wear a helmet to protect themselves."
Sovann's plan fits the ILO strategy of management, planning and coordination through social dialogue, which encourages discourse between management and workers to help both enjoy a more productive and safer working environment.
"We held a similar course dealing with basic agricultural safety in August last year", says Tun Sophorn of the ILO Informal Economy Project. "The main emphasis is fairly basic - material handling and storage, workstation management, machine safety, the work environment, work facilities and organization."
"What makes it so effective is that there are trainees from all the key groups, including the Ministry of Labour, employer and business associations, worker organizations and unions. They go back and train the trainers, so for instance we had 25 in the last course, and they will go back and each train people in their areas, so skills and the benefits of implementing these often small changes are disseminated widely throughout the industry", Sophorn says.
The impact is not yet clear. In an industry where the damage of today's bad work practices may take decades to surface in the form of respiratory diseases or skin cancers, for instance, the campaign is extremely long-term and the benefits may be felt financially and in the cost of human suffering saved in a generation's time.
But as a newly accepted member of the World Trade Organization, Cambodia continues to develop and grow and its government and its workers, as well as responsible business owners, are embracing the cost effective and life saving educational guidance provided by the ILO.
"Last year, 35 people went through the agriculture safety training course. They have now trained 300 others", says Sophorn. "At last month's training session, we had top experts from Japan, for instance, who went with us to a construction site to show first hand what was wrong and what needed to change. The value of being able to share this sort of knowledge with so many people at so many levels of the industry and government can't be measured."
Those experts included people such as Toyama Naoki of the Tokyo Occupational Safety and Health Center, which is recognized as a world leader in its field and has a mandate to encourage developing countries that are growing quickly such as post-civil war Cambodia. Here, there is a wave of construction fuelled by a prosperity built on new found political stability and increased economic security. It is faced with keeping its emphasis on economic growth abreast of its ethical responsibility to protect its human resources.
In countries like Cambodia, there are few laws or precedents to ensure compensation is provided for those individuals incapacitated at work or their families. Prevention, everyone in the industry agrees, is far, far better than cure.
The ILO has long been conscious of the need for special treatment for the construction industry, and as early as in 1937 adopted its first Convention for the industry. In 1988, the Safety and Health in Construction Convention (No. 167) and its accompanying Recommendation (No. 175) were adopted, which particularly address the need for planning and coordination of safety and health on site.
Note 1 - Prevention: A global strategy. Promoting Safety and Health at Work. The ILO Report for World Day for Safety and Health at Work, International Labour Office, Geneva, 2005. ISBN 92-2-117107-8.