April 18 is observed annually as the World Day for Safety and Health at Work, jointly promoted by the United Nations (UN) and the International Labour Organization (ILO), aiming at supporting awareness of workplace safety and health issues. While the international community looks forward ahead of the coming event to step into a safer working environment, sadly, Pakistan has nothing to present on the occasion amid the ever-worsening conditions of occupational safety and health in its various economic sectors, having failed to take any concrete steps to effectively control and regulate the workplace safety.
In recent years, the importance of creating strong environments of safety and health at the workplace has been critically realised the world-over, in the wake of Covid-19 pandemic, climate changes, and increasing number of premature deaths due to work-related accidents and serious diseases caused by occupational hazards and environmental pollution. The fallout also has a colossal economic impact adversely affecting global GDP growth. The ILO largely contributes to stress on prevention of accidents and diseases at work, involving all stakeholders, having developed a global strategy on the Occupational Safety and Health (OSH)—the new term in use is the Workplace Health and Safety (WHS). Its framework includes guiding the governments through development of a national policy and program, and developing a system of inspection to ensure compliance with the OSH legislation and policy in vogue in the country.
According to the ILO, some 2.78 million workers around the world die from fatal occupational accidents and work-related diseases each year, whereas an additional 374 million workers suffer injuries and disabilities caused from non-fatal occupational accidents. It is estimated that globally as many as 340 million accidents happen at work every year, and 160 million victims endure work-related illnesses such as cancer, acute respiratory and cardiovascular diseases. Occupational accidents causing deaths and injuries and work-related diseases are global problems but developing countries are at high risk due to poor working conditions and occupational hazards, among other reasons.
In the context of Pakistan, the ILO confirms “poor occupational safety and health at the workplace in both formal and informal sectors”. Nonetheless, there are no statistics available any year about the number of accidents at the workplace, deaths occurred due to these accidents, injuries on this account and serious diseases inflicted on workers. These are known to be highly alarming figures, particularly in explosions in mines and boiler-accidents in industries, as reported in the media from time to time. The only figure with the ILO, which is not likely to be reliable and maybe higher, is that every year 1,136 workers suffer occupational injuries per 100,000 workers.
The ILO, which provides technical assistance to the government in all labour-related issues, has observed that most of the enterprises in the organised sectors in Pakistan are not aware of OSH risks and hazards, and do not realise the importance of addressing the OSH risks. The situation has been compounded by insensitivity and callousness shown by the government to developing a national preventive safety and health culture. It is reflected in the fact that Pakistan has not yet ratified any of the ILO’s guidelines on the subject, such as the Occupational Safety and Health Convention, 1981 (No. 161), which are in force in many other countries.
Nonetheless, there are no statistics available any year about the number of accidents at the workplace (in Pakistan), deaths occurred due to these accidents, injuries on this account and serious diseases inflicted on workers. These are known to be highly alarming figures, particularly in explosions in mines and boileraccidents in industries, as reported in the media from time to time. The only figure with the ILO, which is not likely to be reliable and maybe higher, is that every year 1,136 workers suffer occupational injuries per 100,000 workers.
The workers are exposed to various risks at the workplace, be it in mining, construction or manufacturing or agriculture sites. Industrial emissions are currently the world’s fourth leading fatal health risk. There are numerous industrial pollutants and effluents, which contaminate air, water and land. All factories and mills generate some form of pollution. Other sources are hazardous and non-hazardous wastes including chemical waste, use of fertilizers, water & wastewater treatment, through mining & construction activities etc., and the pollution caused by energy production, particularly through the operations of coal-fired power plants. Industrial pollution causes serious impacts on human well-being, such as lung cancer, stroke, heart diseases, chronic bronchitis and pneumonia.
Most harmful to humans and the environment are heavy metals produced such as emissions of copper, lead and mercury. The industries, like textile, leather, paper, metal, rubber, fertilizer, paint, woodworking, cement, marble, plastic and ceramics, and oil & gas exploration & production generate significant environmental hazards. Textile industry uses a variety of chemicals for various processes such as spinning, weaving, knitting, scouring, printing, dyeing, and finishing, which generate dust and emissions of toxic chemicals. Engineering and steel-making industries involve various processes that generate dust, smoke, gases etc. that are harmful to human health.
Steel-making requires high use of energy, whereas production and use of energy emits sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and carbon dioxide. In the engineering industry, the heat treatment, galvanizing and zinc-plating are the processes of using hazardous chemicals, and generates, besides dust and gases, the dangerous substances like ammonium, zinc chloride, hydrochloric acid, cadmium etc. and volatile organic compounds from oil. Exposure to cement dust, asphalt, bitumen, paint and mineral oil are caused due to construction activities and production of cement. It is critical to address pollution, whether air pollution, lead exposure, noise pollution or inadequate sanitation and hygiene at the workplace. Psychological risks and work-related stresses are not even acknowledged in various sectors. Asbestos, which causes high risk of cancer and other serious diseases, is still in use in Pakistan, though banned internationally since long. Accidents at the workplace frequently occur relating to operation of machinery & equipment, fire incidents, malfunction of electricity installations, boiler hazards, damage to building structures etc. Global warming, climate change (heatwaves and floods) and application of new technologies have seriously impacted human lives in recent years.
The ILO has adopted more than 40 international labour standards specifically dealing with the OSH, with focus on developing countries. In this context, the ILO tools and guidelines provide a solid base to implement strong and effective OSH systems at different levels and for various sectors. Thus, other related ILO sectoral Conventions include Occupational Safety and Health (Dock Work) Convention, 1979 (No. 152), Radiation Protection Convention, 1960 (No.115), Hygiene (Commerce and Offices), 1964 (No.120), Occupational Cancer Convention, 1974 (No.139), Working Environment (Air Pollution, Noise, and Vibration) Convention, 1977 (No. 148), Occupational Health Services Convention, 1985 (No.161), Asbestos Convention, 1986 (No.162), Safety and Health in Construction Convention, 1988 (No. 167), Chemicals Convention, 1990 (No. 170), and Safety and Health in Agriculture Convention, 2001 (No. 184). None of these important Conventions however have been ratified by Pakistan though safety and health measures at the workplace play a crucial role in containing the diseases, and protecting the workers, and society at large. In all there are 54 ILO Conventions that have not been ratified by Pakistan for enforcement.
Unfortunately, Pakistan remains contended with the legal and regulatory framework of only the outdated Factories Act 1934 and the Hazardous Occupation Rules of 1978, though effective compliance of neither is seen at any workplace. The weak enforcement and ineffective management, compounded with high population growth and rapid urbanization, paints a gloomy picture of the state of safety and health of workers. By and large, Pakistan is still struggling with basic workplace safety in the wake of unsafe water, poor sanitation, lack of hygiene, massive air pollution, and absence of proper healthcare services, particularly in the informal sector. It is only recently that Pakistan has consented to ratify ILO’s Safety and Health in Mines Convention, 1995 (No.176). Also, the 2021 International Accord on Health and Safety in the Textile and Garment Industry is expected to be extended to Pakistan this month to support the export-related industrial sector.
The writer is a retired Chairman of the State Engineering Corporation