We say that all are equal before the law. But echoing another famous saying, some are more equal than others and this applies as much to our safety and health laws as any other.
We know our laws apply to all employees, yet some – because of who they are and where they work – are more at risk than others.
As a charity, the British Safety Council has a strong interest in vulnerable workers. We have seen through our Mates in Mind initiative that the construction sector’s predominately male workforce creates an added vulnerability to the risks of poor mental health. I very much doubt that mental health would be such an issue if the sector was predominately female.
Of course, it’s not just a worker’s gender that can create an added risk. The size of the organisation you work for can make you more vulnerable. If you work outdoors next to busy roads you are more vulnerable to background air pollution; possibly more than if you work in a workplace which maintains its air quality according to agreed exposure limits. And if you are working in a new sector like recycling, the evidence shows that ‘newness’ is as much of a risk factor as being new to the job. So, though we are in theory all protected by the law, the degree of protection varies a great deal.
One of the greatest vulnerabilities any worker faces, though, is the country they happen to work in. Each country has its own view on the value of life; has a certain labour pool and sectoral mix that creates different risks and needs for skilled or unskilled workers; different institutions to give effect to these values and a unique legal and regulatory framework.
We can see how these differences among countries lead to huge variety in the numbers of workers killed or injured at work. And it isn’t just about wealth and GDP. For example, India, developing rapidly and galloping into the future with a space programme, still suffers from a regulatory regime that is in urgent need of modernisation. Tens of thousands of workers die at work each year and many more suffer life-changing injuries.
India’s challenges are significant. There is a large pool of cheap labour; inadequate implementation of existing legislation, as well as regulatory gaps with a large informal sector representing 90% of the workforce with little social protection; a limited inspectorate, poor training and a general lack of awareness of safety and health risks. Together, these factors conspire to create enormous vulnerabilities in India’s workforce – and that’s before we start to get under the skin of the impact of added risk factors such as gender, age or existing health conditions.
The British Safety Council has a vision that no one should be injured or made ill at work and that means we must operate where workers are at their most vulnerable. We do so in the UK by focussing on some of the higher hazard industries, and we need to do so internationally where the majority of death and injury occurs. I am very proud that this month we are opening a new office in Mumbai, India, to better intervene in the health, safety and wellbeing of Indian workers. We have some very committed members in India. By leveraging these good relationships we can expand the services we provide – whether training or auditing – to keep people safe.
We also want to do more to influence the business and regulatory drivers that make a difference. As we build and grow our presence in India we will be able to do this. And with this exciting development in mind, I would like to pay tribute to Lynda Armstrong, who is stepping down as Chair of the British Safety Council this month, and thank her for her support to put us on the frontline, fighting for the most vulnerable of our workers.
By Lawrence Waterman OBE, British Safety Council on 30 July 2020
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