Helsinki (03.12.2001 - Juhani Artto) In 2001-2002 the International Labour Organisation - ILO is spending USD 40 million on its SafeWork and related field programmes, in which most of the organisation's operations for occupational health and safety are concentrated. Programme Director Jukka Takala* gives an idea of the magnitude of the challenge with four simple but shocking statistics:

  • Injuries at work and occupational diseases claim 1.3 million deaths annually.
  • There are 250 million accidents at workplaces each year.
  • 160 million working men and women contract occupational diseases each year.
  • Approximately four per cent of gross national product is lost through injuries at work and occupational diseases.

Although the ILO invests heavily in the work of this sector, the available funds have little far-reaching impact. This means that the first challenge facing the SafeWork programme is to define its priorities properly. For this purpose a global expert consultation was organised in Geneva in December 1999. According to the summary of the expert consultative meeting, "the programme elements should have measurable goals that would be easy to evaluate after implementing the programme".

These "measurable goals" are now in place. There are five of them. They clearly outline the stage that the world has reached in tackling the complex package of problems and the role of the ILO in this work.

1. Ratification, application and enforcement of standards

Since its establishment in 1919 the ILO International Labour Conference has approved nearly one hundred Conventions affecting occupational health and safety. There are also ILO recommendations, codes of practice and guides. The SafeWork programme focuses the ratification campaign on the ten most important Conventions. These concern fundamental principles, occupational health services, labour inspection, asbestos, chemicals, agriculture, construction, major industrial accidents and several other key issues.

Jukka Takala reports that a promotional Convention is under consideration to summarise the key elements of the entire Convention family, and that this would become one of the Fundamental ILO Conventions of which there are currently eight. Promoting and defending these Conventions is the core of the ILO strategy. This is to be discussed at the 2003 International Labour Conference - the ILO "Parliament" - comprising government, employee and employer representatives.

As to the Conventions, the measurable goal is to secure a certain number of new ratifications each year. Sweden has ratified 18 of the 20 most important health and safety Conventions, thereby claiming pole position. This is followed by Finland (17), Brazil (15), Germany, Norway, Spain (each 14) and Uruguay (13). More than 50 countries have ratified between 4 and 12 Conventions, while the rest have ratified fewer than 4.

2. Application of codes of practice

A second measurable goal is to create new language editions and locally adapted national versions of the documents known as codes of practice. More than 20 such codes of practice have been drawn up so far, covering either various industrial sectors (such as mines, agriculture, forestry, construction, iron and steel) or particular risks (ionising radiation, noise and vibration, exposure to airborne substances, use of synthetic vitreous fibre insulation wool). The recommendations in these codes of practice are finalised by tripartite panels of experts and their publication is approved by the ILO Governing Body.

3. National SafeWork programmes

The ILO SafeWork campaign promotes the creation of national SafeWork programmes. This year the goal is to finalise such programmes in ten more countries. Criteria specifying the desirable content of a national programme are currently being prepared. These programmes could focus on a specific aspect of a problem according to local needs.

4. Accident statistics

Global accident statistics are sorely deficient. According to Jukka Takala, about 50 countries produce fairly reliable national statistics. A further 30 to 40 countries have "some statistics", but most of the ILO Member States lack even this. The ILO tries to assist those countries that lag behind. This year's goal is to upgrade the situation in four countries: Pakistan, the Philippines, Jamaica and Nigeria.

With statistics in this state, how can the ILO publish global summaries in figures?

"We have piloted household surveys in the Philippines, Nigeria, Pakistan and Jamaica. The sample of 5,000 to 10,000 people covers all industries, including the unorganised economy. The result has helped us to generalise the global situation," Jukka Takala says. "We have also produced models for other countries to make similar surveys but as we have not been able to provide financial support not much has happened."

In the industrialised part of the world the problem lies in the dissimilarity of criteria used to produce statistics. This limits the relevance of international statistical comparisons. "Denmark, for example, has broader criteria for occupational diseases than other industrialised countries. Statistically this makes working life in Denmark look more dangerous than elsewhere, while in reality this country is one of the most advanced."

Jukka Takala illustrates the problem: "The statistical picture is still further distorted by the low accident recording and notification rate in developing countries. There are nations more populous than Finland profiling themselves with only a few hundred accidents at work taking place annually. Finland, with a labour force of 2.5 million, records about 120,000 of them each year."

5. Development project financing

The SafeWork programme is mainly financed by the ILO's own budget. The remaining funding of about four million dollars in 2001-2002 comes from development co-operation expenditure by national governments, UNDP and the narcotics control agency UNDCP.

Finland used to assist generously in ILO health and safety projects but lately its contribution has dried up. Denmark in particular, but also Germany and Norway now play a more positive role.

Jukka Takala also expects the World Bank and regional development banks to pay more attention to occupational health and safety. "Our negotiations with Bretton Woods institutions, seeking to add health and safety issues to their development project financing criteria, have progressed promisingly."

Different priorities in the South and North

The priorities of the South and the North are quite different.

This is how the ILO, according to Jukka Takala, lists the North's priorities: stress, an ageing workforce, the right to know, chemicals, ergonomics, management and safety culture, occupational health services, new technologies and violence at work.

In the South the main issue list resembles the one formerly applied in the North: agriculture and other dangerous occupations, major accidents and fires, safety, housekeeping and productivity, silicosis and other occupational diseases, vulnerable groups, gender, child labour, transfer of technology and poor enforcement.

Protection pays

An important part of ILO health and safety work is to document the economic benefits of the financial and intellectual investments made in the sector by enterprises, the public sector, communities, employee organisations and individuals. "More documentation still needs to be produced and published in order to convince all parties of the benefits," Jukka Takala says.

In May 2000 the ILO published a major overview: The Economics of Safety, Health and Well-being at Work by Peter Dorman.

Jukka Takala notes, for example, that five per cent of employees in Finland are on sick-leave every day. Seven per cent of the labour force is on disability pension caused by poor working conditions. Both groups would be much smaller if health and safety work had been better in the past.

"The estimate of injuries at work and occupational diseases costing four per cent of gross national product is based on the compensation paid to victims in Finland," Jukka Takala explains. "Similar amounts have been calculated in the United Kingdom."

"Such compensation is never paid to most of the workers of the world and the burden is left to the victims and families themselves," he adds.

Weaknesses in enforcement

"Many countries have made reasonable improvements in occupational health and safety legislation and small advances are made continuously, but in many cases enforcement lags far behind. Almost everywhere there are both quantitative and qualitative weaknesses in this area. We can broadly generalise that the poorer the country is, the more serious its enforcement shortcomings are," Jukka Takala says.

A common mistake is to think that poor countries cannot afford health and safety at work. In fact, however, this is a prerequisite for high productivity and competitiveness.

One function of the ILO is to audit the countries that have ratified health and safety conventions, such as the one on labour inspection: "Our goal is to audit four to five countries annually, but the programme is still in its infancy."

Upgrading the issue on the political agenda

As a leading occupational health and safety expert Jukka Takala is - not surprisingly - convinced that the sector's problems deserve a higher position on the political agenda. At the same time he is ready to admit that even within the ILO such issues do not always enjoy a very high ranking. Less than ten per cent of the organisation's budget is devoted to the SafeWork programme.

Priority is given to the campaigns for core labour standards and against child labour. Jukka Takala does not object this as there is no doubt that, for example, trade union rights are essential for healthier and safer working conditions to materialise.

Summing up, Jukka Takala says that occupational health and safety problems are, despite the huge efforts made in the last few decades, undervalued at all levels: internationally, nationally, in enterprises and individually at grassroots level.

*Dr. Jukka Takala, Director of SafeWork, the ILO InFocus Programme on Safety and Health at Work and the Environment, Chair of the Inter-organisation Programme on Sound Management of Chemicals (IOMC). In the 1970s he worked in Finland in industry, in the university sector and at the ministries of labour and of social affairs and health. In the 1980s Jukka Takala served as Chief Technical Adviser to the ILO in strengthening the Factory Inspectorate in Kenya and establishing an OSH Institute (NICE, Bangkok) in Thailand. Until the mid-1990s he was Chief of ILO Safety and Health Information Centre, subsequently serving as Chief of the OSH Branch of the ILO.