With over six million people dying due to COVID-19 in the last two years, safety and health have become central to every local, national, and international discussion. As accidents, injuries, and diseases are prevalent in many industries, all of which directly and indirectly affect workers' and their families' well-being, it makes ensuring a preventative safety and health culture a critical component of any workplace. Globally, an estimated 2.9 million deaths and 402 million non-fatal injuries are attributed to occupational accidents and diseases. For the world of work to build forward from the pandemic in a more human-centred and resilient way, occupational safety and health (OSH) mechanisms need to be strengthened to establish workplaces that are not hazardous for workers.
Since 2003, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) has commemorated April 28 as World Day for Safety and Health at Work to stress the prevention of accidents and diseases at work by capitalising on our strength of tripartism and social dialogue. Our new publication, "Enhancing social dialogue towards a culture of safety and health," and this year's theme, "Act together to build a positive safety and health culture", explores the role of social dialogue in creating a positive safety and health culture at workplaces, which will be made possible by cooperation and discussions between employers and workers.
Implementation of OSH code
Occupational accidents and diseases cost 5.4% of the global GDP annually. While less tangibly, they materialise as presenteeism (working with less effectiveness), productivity losses associated with permanent impairment, and staff-turnover costs (i.e., loss of skilled staff). The Government of India declared the National Policy on Safety, Health and Environment at Workplace in February 2009 and compiled the available OSH information as National OSH Profile in 2018. The next important step is launching a strategic National OSH Programme. Effective implementation of the code of OSH and working conditions of 2020 is expected to extend OSH protection to more sectors, especially to informal workers who make up nearly 90% of India's workforce, and provide fair and effective labour inspections, as labour inspection visits dropped from 1,21,757 in 2011 to 93,846 in 2016. The code should also promote active workplace OSH committees.
At the national level, the government needs to include all relevant ministries to ensure that workers' safety and health are prioritised in the national agenda. This requires allocating adequate resources to increase general awareness around OSH, knowledge of hazards and risks, and an understanding of their control and prevention measures. At the state level, workers' and employers' organisations, by way of bilateral discussions, must incorporate safety and health training at every level of their supply chains to ensure protection from workplace injuries and diseases. Social dialogue is essential for improving compliance and plays a vital role in building ownership and instilling commitment, which paves the way for the rapid and effective implementation of OSH policies.
OSH coverage across India
India has some good practices for extending OSH coverage. The Government of Uttar Pradesh, in cooperation with employers and workers, carried out participatory OSH training workshops for metal and garment home-based workers. Most of these workers are in the informal economy and remain unreachable by other occupational health and safety initiatives. The Government of Kerala applied the ILO's participatory OSH training methodologies and reached out to small construction sites for OSH improvements. The Government of Rajasthan generated OSH awareness among workers and employers in stone processing units for preventing occupational lung diseases.
A reliable occupational accident and disease reporting system is vital for remedying victims and making effective prevention policies for safer and healthier workplaces. While India has such a mechanism, it is underutilised, with many injuries, accidents, and diseases going unregistered. The lack of awareness of health hazards at workplaces leads to misdiagnosis by doctors. Corrective action entails training doctors on the various occupational diseases and workplace hazards and risks.
Occupational injuries and illnesses cause immeasurable suffering and loss to victims and their families. Moreover, they also entail economic losses for enterprises and economies. Therefore, strong social dialogue mechanisms for appropriately addressing occupational safety and health, by adequately investing in its prevention, will contribute to building a safe and healthy workforce and support productive enterprises, which form the bedrock of a sustainable economy.
Dagmar Walter is Director, ILO Decent Work Technical Support Team for South Asia and Country Office for India, part of UN Team India