Prevention of occupational diseases and injuries…Whose responsibility?

Article 24(1) of the 1992 Constitution of the Republic of Ghana provides that every person has the right to work under safe and healthy conditions.

The import of this provision is that the worker’s safety and health is a fundamental right and that the employee should not work at the risk of his or her life.

In an era of increasing modernisation and urbanisation, working people, all over the world, tend to spend more hours at the workplace than in their homes and, as a developing country, Ghana, no doubt, has limited critical skills and expertise to grow the economy.

This calls for the protection of the limited human capital through the adoption of zero-tolerance for compromises in safety and health standards at the workplace.

Where social protection is weak or absent at the workplace, the ultimate cost is human life – as many workers and their families lack the care and support they need, resulting in the emergence of occupational diseases which reduce the productivity of enterprises, impoverish workers and their families, undermine whole communities when they lose their most productive workers and increase the financial burden on the state, with the rising cost of health care.

Without doubt, the promotion of Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) has improved over the past decades, yet the level of workplace fatalities, injuries and illnesses still remains unacceptably high with social and economic implications for men, women, their families and national economies as a whole.

According to International Labour Organisation (ILO) reports, an estimated 2.34 million, including close to 360,000 fatal accidents and an estimated 1.95 million fatal work-related diseases occur each year at the workplace, with the vast majority of deaths (2.03 million) occurring as a result of a wide range of work-related diseases, referred to as occupational diseases.

In economic terms it is estimated that about four per cent (US$1.25 trillion) of the annual global Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is siphoned off by the direct and indirect costs of occupational accidents and diseases such as lost working time, workers’ compensation, the interruption of production and medical expenses.

Hazardous substances, ILO reports indicate, also account for an estimated 651,000 deaths, mostly in the developing world while data from a number of industrialised countries indicate that construction workers are three to four times more likely than other workers to die from accidents at work.

Thus occupational lung disease, for example, in mining and related industries arising from exposure to asbestos, coal and silica, is still a concern in developed and developing countries, with asbestos alone claiming about 100,000 deaths every year- and the figure is rising annually.

In recent times, there has been an increase in the use of pesticides and other agro-chemicals which are associated with the risk of pesticide poisoning among farmers and their families who work on their farms.

The potential for ill-health, injuries and deaths in Ghana’s oil and gas sector is real, taking a cue from the Gulf oil spill in 2010 which cost the Company, British Petroleum (BP), one hundred million pounds.

The absence of OSH includes unsanitary workplace practices such as the lack of hygienic toilet facilities, sharing of common drinking cups, eating of food prepared under unhygienic conditions and poor eating habits-failure to eat at regular intervals, consumption of excessive amounts of saturated fats and refined sugars and the inadequate intake of roughage-containing foods, among others.

The abuse of alcohol and drugs in an attempt to cope with stress has also been identified as factors leading to a less-than-optimum state of well-being among employees resulting in absenteeism and reduction in productivity.

Ghana, the statistics indicate, continues to lose critical workforce to chronic diseases, injuries and deaths due to failure by employers and organisations to uphold and maintain OSH standards.

Thus in the year 2012, for example, the country’s economy lost about GH¢1.8 million on occupational injuries and diseases apart from the loss of lives and source of livelihoods, when the Labour Department paid an amount of GH¢956,326 as Workmen’s Compensation to 121 victims of occupational accidents in the public sector.

Prevention, it is important to note, is key to tackling the burden of occupational diseases, and is acknowledged to be more effective and less costly than treatment and rehabilitation.

The ILO Promotional Framework for Occupational Safety and Health Convention, 2006 (No. 187) and its accompanying Recommendation (No. 197), it must be noted, define provisions for countries to promote OSH through national OSH systems and programmes, the building of a preventive safety and health culture and applying a systems approach to the management of OSH—and the responsibility of prevention is square placed on the shoulders of employers, government and employee groups.

As employers, the responsibility lies in ensuring that the workplaces are safe and without risk to health which requires systems, guidelines, standards, legislation and regulation.

Government, for its part, has the duty to provide the infrastructure – laws and services – including the development of a national policy and programme and a system of inspection to enforce compliance with OSH legislation and policy necessary to ensure that workers remain employable and that enterprises flourish in safety and in hygienic environments.

Workers themselves are also required to protect themselves and not endanger others, know their rights and to participate in implementing preventive measures.

Safe work, it is worthy of note, has four major goals, namely to develop preventive policies and programmes to protect workers in hazardous occupations and sectors; extend the effective protection to vulnerable groups of workers falling outside the scope of traditional protective measures; better equip governments, employers’ and workers’ organisations to address problems of workers’ well-being, occupational health care and the quality of working life; and document the social and economic impact of improving workers’ protection.

So far, the Government of Ghana has taken a number of steps as prevention measures which include strengthening the operation, mechanism and structures of the Department of Factories Inspectorate while the Ministry of Employment, under the Danish International Development Assistance (DANIDA)-sponsored Business Sector Program Support, has drafted a new National Occupational Safety and Health policy to replace the outmoded Factories, Offices and Shops Act, 1970 (Act 328).

In addition and as an initial step towards the finalisation and implementation of a comprehensive National OSH policy, the Ministry is being supported by the ILO to develop Occupatoional Safety and Health legislation.

Furthermore, government has initiated plans which are far advance for the construction of a Labour Office Complex that will house the Department of Factories Inspectorate and other labour-related Departments of the Ministry.

There is also collaboration between the National Steering Committee on Employee Health and Well-being Programmes (NEHAWP), the strategic Alliance Partners and the Ghana Business Coalition on Employee Well-being under the direction of the German Development Corporation (GIZ).

By G.D. Zaney

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