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Workplace safety conference at the ILO Turin Centre: “Good practice, information and a culture of prevention as the ways to combat deaths at work”

news - 23/06/2008

270 million accidents a year, 2.2 million deaths, 160 million workers affected by work-related illnesses (source: ILO). These are the terms of a global challenge that calls for a global commitment to good practice, information and spreading a culture of safety and prevention. This was the subject of an international conference held today by the training centre of the International Labour Organization (ILO), the UN agency entrusted with promoting decent work throughout the world.

It is a challenge to both industrialized and non-industrialized countries, one whose cost in terms of  human lives and in economic terms is inestimable. It calls for deeper knowledge and constant research into good practice.

In the words of Sejii Machida (Japan), a specialist from the ILO in Geneva, “Every year, over 4 per cent of the gross world product is lost due to workplace accidents and work-related illnesses.” “One of the major problems,” continued Machida, “is finding a common language in an increasingly globalized context. To give a concrete example, after nearly ten years of negotiations, the UN has managed to get worldwide agreement on a global system for classifying chemical products. Unfortunately, this system has not yet been universally adopted, with the result that a lot of accidents are caused just by wrong information.” Globalization, the increasing industrialization of developing countries and countries in transition, the growth of multinational companies and the rapid change in types of economic activity all render the problem more complex. “There are many international legal instruments. They include 19 ILO Conventions, 2 Protocols, 26 Recommendations and 37 Codes of Conduct. There are also international agreements and very good national laws. But all this counts for less if there is no culture of prevention and safety among workers and employers, one based on prevention, on the respecting of rights and duties, and, above all, on active participation by both groups,” Machida concluded.

Sarah Copsey, of the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work, stressed that “Information and awareness-raising campaigns, which number among the Agency’s main activities, are fundamental. Different sectors call for different strategies. Information has an essential role because it is an effective way of sharing experience and good practice. In this context, the Internet and new technology are key means of sharing experience and increasing involvement in campaigns to promote safety at work. The material produced by the Agency, for instance, is widely available to everyone, in all the official languages of the EU, and can be freely copied, adapted and disseminated. We invite every firm in Europe, no matter how big or small, to take an active part in the information campaign that we are promoting.”

According to Riccardo Rosi, Deputy Director of the Turin Union of Industry, any analysis of good practice should be based on the figures, and the figures show that in the last 50 years, and especially in the last 5 years, there has been an improvement, given that workplace deaths have fallen by 70 per cent, with 35 per cent of this concentrated in the last 5 years. According to Rosi, “Work still suffers from too many accidents and deaths. However, over-dramatizing does not help anybody. To take one example, 50 per cent of the deaths are caused by road accidents, mostly while going to or from work, and in 70 per cent of those cases the cause can be traced to human error, which has to be acted against through information, training and reasoning.” According to Rosi, wrong data are often used. “The amalgamated law itself is chock-full of errors and of penalties that are not always justified,” Rosi went on, “real oppression that demands everything and leaves little room for good practice." "The insurance system in Italy," Rosi concluded, "has, in the last few years, generated a profit of over 13 billion euros, but none of it has come back to enterprises, nor to workers, in the form, for example, of training.”

Laura Seidita, of the CGIL trade union federation in Piedmont, takes a different view: “The situation is both delicate and complex. We are facing a real major emergency: 1,300 deaths and 913,500 accidents in 2007; over 400 dead in the first months of 2008. It is a problem that should make everyone think and which nobody can shrug off. Those figures are unacceptable. A worker’s right to health and welfare is guaranteed in several sections of the Constitution, as President Napolitano has stressed ever since he was elected. One of the causes is the way work is organized, and many, too many, employers put being competitive before safety. Workers are often burdened with unacceptable workloads, which makes their work inhumane. Everyone has to play their part, and the unions are ready to play theirs. As for us, we consider the amalgamated law to be a good piece of legislation which gives a strong signal in favour of a system of prevention, health promotion, agreement among the social partners, making firms more responsible as regards tenders, safety plans and combating illegal work: a real cultural revolution.”