IntroductionOver the last two decades, there has been rapid growth of Health, Safety and Environment (HSE) governance driven by regulators and supported by multinationals and voluntary HSE organizations in Asia. Though the focus has been primarily on safety, for the obvious reasons of immediate or acute effects, the importance of industrial hygiene (IH) is becoming more critical. The stringent regulatory requirements, coupled with greater understanding on the health impacts, and the growth of the professional industrial hygienists facilitated the positive changes. How can we accelerate the future growth of industrial hygiene in Asia? What are the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead? This Think piece highlights 3 key focused interventions that will steer the growth of IH to greater heights:
- leadership commitment
- culture of compliance
- competency development.
General Description of Issues & ScopeBased on 2018 data (Wikipedia.org), Asia represents 59.7% or 4.4 billion of global population, and according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) Report of 2018, the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of Asian countries ranges between 3-10%, among the highest growth of all the continents, besides Africa. This translates into rapid business growth and global dependencies on Asia for reliable, quality and affordable products. In the business environment, low production cost is often likely to be compensated with a poorer state of health & safety.
According to the International Labor Organization (ILO), more than 1.1 million people die every year from occupational accidents or work-related diseases in Asia and the Pacific. ILO also notes that the poorest, least protected, least informed and least trained as the most affected. Diseases caused by chemicals, physical agents, biological agents, musculo-skeletal disorders and mental and behavioral disorders have been showing increasing trends, though, they are likely to be under reported.
Closer to home, in Malaysia, the Department of Occupational Safety and Health (DOSH), recorded a 31% increase of occupational disease cases reported in 2016 (7820 cases) compared to 2015 (5960 cases). The top three cases were related to Noise Induced Hearing Loss (NIHL), musculo-skeletal disorders (MSD) and occupational lung diseases. Review of the industries’ commitment, showed that, whilst the big players or multinationals are putting in effort to reduce the risks of injuries or illnesses through effective HSE Management Systems, many of the smaller scale enterprises are reluctant to focus on health & safety, mainly because of their bottom line. Inability to associate good HSE is good business, lack of care for their workers and ineffective enforcement activities are among the root causes for this situation. How can we address this issue in a more effective manner, at a faster pace?
Like I mentioned earlier, the future growth of IH must be intensified by strengthening the following 3 areas.
1) Leadership commitmentWe cannot deny the significant influence a leader has in shaping the right HSE culture, and hence producing the right HSE results. Strong leadership commitment must begin with the highest authority in a country, where the government values workers’ lives, whenever they make strategic decisions. Government commitment and accountability to safeguard its people (including foreign workers) whilst promoting economic growth is crucial in support of the United Nation (UN) Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), where access to safe workplaces is a basic human right.
Leadership commitment to drive IH must also be instilled in the hearts and minds of business leaders, so that sufficient health & safety costs are allocated in business planning. Leaders actively develop their skills and must be role models in hazard and risk prevention. Commitment and perseverance of leaders from the voluntary IH organizations and research institutes is paramount in creating this drive. Clearly defined and joint accountability of these leaders, as seen in many developed countries, is a mandatory expectation in Asia.
2) Culture of complianceCompliance to rules and regulations correlates with the level of societal maturity and household income. In Asian culture, there has been positive growth in the aspect of compliance, particularly with the stringent and transparent enforcement activities. While rules, systems and procedures are critical in setting standards practices, users or workers understanding of the purpose and meaning of those rules are crucial in shaping sustainable HSE culture. A Culture of compliance must be supported with a robust feedback loop, effective risk assessment and audit programs. Culture of compliance built upon enforcement activities coupled with continuous education programs proves to be more sustainable. Balanced rewards and consequence management, adopting the principles of Just Culture is an important element in strengthening Compliance culture.
3) Competency developmentRobust safety and health competency development must begin in homes and schools way before individuals starts their working life. Education reform to include safety & health in the syllabus in schools in shaping the right HSE culture in a country is a must. Young children, who are taught good values such as respecting the law and care for others will develop good habits.
The growth of IH professional development and certification, on par with other professional accreditation such as engineers and medical officers, recognizes IH as a noble profession, in the business of saving lives. This will further raise the profile and interest in the profession, will promulgate research and development opportunities and will help explore new knowledge and the best available technology to manage risks in a timely and cost-effectives manner.
Competency of general workers on the basic risks and controls required to protect their health and safety must be intensified. Easy access to safety and health information on the internet makes learning faster and exciting, compared to the primitive ways of learning. In addition, numerous reliable information is readily available on websites hosted by governmental or safety & health organizations and e-learning providers.
One of the catalysts that drives competency is access to safety & health coaches, individuals that are trusted to guide and mentor workers. Considering the Asian population of 4.4 billion, it has the greatest number of employed persons, where continuous coaching and mentoring are necessary. Voluntary organizations, education partners and multinationals, in collaboration with government agencies, should focus to develop more volunteers accessible to workers and small medium enterprises.
Challenges & OpportunitiesHeraclitus, a Greek philosopher, is quoted as saying "change is the only constant in life.” Mindset change and resources, which includes human capital and funding, are the main challenges to steer the growth of IH to greater heights. Nevertheless, the opportunities outweigh the challenges that drive industrial hygienists to persevere, consistently carry the message that we care for our lives of human being, because it is the right thing to do.
Concluding RemarksI am a true believer of Mahatma Gandhi’s “Be the change that you wish to see in the world.” Being an advocate of IH, I am committed to be part of the change. To summarise my learnings being in a career path of IH, I can proudly say:
IH = I Help others value the importance of life
IH = I Honor the importance of safety
In short… IH = I’m HUMANE. Shouldn’t we all be?