August 23, 2022
A landmark decision was made recently in the long history of efforts to protect people from injury and illness at work. At a hybrid conference held by the International Labour Organization (ILO) in Geneva, for those attending in person, delegates voted in favour of a resolution to make the principle of a safe and healthy work environment a human right. That’s correct; we managed to reach the third decade of the 21st century without a safe workplace being a fundamental right of us all.
Safety, health and wellbeing at work is, without question, the most important of all responsibilities facing those who employ others. It can be a matter of life and death and deserves to be front and centre of any debate on work as it is performed today as well as the future of work. That it isn’t in the public conscience in the same way as, say, climate change has long been the challenge facing those of us who work in the health and safety profession and who strive to make workplaces healthier and safer. Yet, nearly 2.8 million people are estimated to lose their lives each year to avoidable, unnecessary work-related injuries or illness. That is a conservative estimate, in my view, and many, many millions more suffer serious, often life-changing injuries or ill health at work.
Are we talking only of high hazard industries here, such as construction and mining? No, work of all kinds can damage both our physical and mental health as well as our wellbeing, and the figures for workplace fatalities, injuries and ill health tell us that collectively we are failing to protect everyone at work, and that is simply unacceptable.
All human beings, wherever they live and work, have a right to a safe and healthy workplace
So, the decision by delegates at the 110th International Labour Conference to adopt the resolution was more than simply a landmark decision in the history of safety and health at work; it was vital.
Personally, I have always believed that this was a glaring omission from the ILO’s Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work, but now it sits alongside the effective abolition of slavery and child labour and the elimination of discrimination at work as a fundamental right of all us.
Is it really going to make a difference? Let’s consider it. The decision ensured all ILO member states declared a commitment to respect and promote the right to a safe and healthy work environment. In human rights terms, it means the right to return home safely at the end of a working day is ‘inalienable’ or unconditional. It is universal, meaning all human beings, wherever they live and work, have a right to a safe and healthy workplace.
You could argue that in a world in which we have international standards and regulatory frameworks, occupational safety and health doesn’t need to be ratified as a human right. You could say there are ample checks and balances, in the shape of rules and regulations, enforcement agencies, societal pressures and scrutiny from investors and customers, to make this decision unnecessary.
I understand these reservations, but I don’t agree with them because based on my 30 years on international health and safety experience it is not a level playing field and some countries have much more advanced frameworks and processes in place than others. I am sure you all know that. I am conscious that a lot of progress has been made in the 20th and 21st centuries to upgrade the safety and health of working people in most parts of the world. In fact, the promotion of safe, healthy workplaces is now considered central to the sustainability agenda and a core consideration at Board level by many companies.
The statistics on workplace fatalities tell that us we are still falling woefully short, however. The ILO decision matters because it brings other things into the picture.
Human rights create a common framework of values recognised universally. Essentially, they are the only values system recognised globally, and state actors, such as Governments, are duty-bound to put in place frameworks and challenge violations where they confront them. Regulatory frameworks differ from country to country, but human rights, in their universality, make us accountable to each other.
International human rights law will also provide an essential framework and guidance to responsible and sustainable policy-making and I am convinced that in developing and emerging countries, the Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work can now guide the formulation of new safety and health regulations.
I now hope to see Governments and other state actors put in place the framework, policies and control processes to position the health, safety and wellbeing of their greatest assets first and forefront. They need to stand up and challenge violations of the human right to a safe and healthy work environment, internally within their own countries and externally within their value chains. Hopefully governments and policy makers can look to responsible corporations and see how they apply best-in-class standards across their sites globally and then take internationally-recognised standards from other countries and use this as a frame for their own policies and regulations.
The decision, to make safe and health work environments a human right, means I will now be speaking more regularly to my colleagues both within and outside of L’Oréal. I suspect similar conversations will be had in organisations worldwide.
Based on my experience as an occupational safety and health professional, the ILO decision is a game changer and will result in legislative changes across many countries where legislation is light, non-existent or not enforced. It could also result in more visibility within the human capital, sustainability (people sustainability, that is) and ESG agendas. This is an historic decision, and it will save lives.
Malcolm Staves is Global Vice President Health & Safety at L’Oréal, occupational health and safety strategic partner for the Capitals Coalition and a former advisory board vice-chairman of the Centre for Safety & Health Sustainability. Malcolm is also co-founder of OneWish, a global coalition of organisations working to see more women assume leadership positions in the field of health and safety.