Health & Safety

Preventable, work-related accidents injure and kill millions of people every year.

According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), about two million people are killed on the job worldwide every year. The number of work accidents, fatal and non-fatal, stands at around 270 million. More than 160 million people suffer from work-related ailments and diseases.  Tragically, most of these deaths, injuries, and diseases are preventable.

The human cost of work-related deaths, injuries, and diseases is immeasurable.  The economic cost is incomprehensible.  It amounts to about 4% of the global gross domestic product or almost US$4 trillion annually.

These costs are unevenly distributed around the world. They take a particularly heavy toll in developing countries and strike the poorest and least protected people—women, children, and migrants—the hardest.

Safety is material.  Workers need safe buildings, emergency exits, fire protection, ventilation, potable water, and personal protective equipment. 

But safety is also about the social relations at work.  If workers have no rights, and no voice at work, they are not safe.

Garment factories in Bangladesh are a case in point.

Thousands of Bangladeshi workers have been killed or injured in factory fires, building collapses, and other deadly garment factory incidents in recent years.  In case after case, workers interviewed after the tragedies reported that they found exits locked or blocked and managers refusing to heed their concerns.  Workers smelled smoke, but were told to continue working only to be killed in fires.  They observed cracks in the walls but were threatened to report to work or lose their meager wages, only to be crushed under collapsing buildings.  They consistently reported that raising safety concerns with managers or joining with other workers to address the problems could be a punishable offense that would get them fired.

On April 23, 2013, workers in the factories of the Rana Plaza building outside the capital Dhaka of Bangladesh noticed cracks in the building.  Managers in a bank and small shops that occupied the first and second floor of the building also noticed the cracks, closed shop, and told their employees to stay home the following day.  But the garment factories ordered their workers to return to work on April 24, threatening the loss of one month’s pay if they did not comply.  That day at least 1,135 workers were crushed to death under the collapsing building. The vast majority of these workers had no union representation and no voice to demand their rights or to refuse dangerous work.

Health and safety by law and international norms

  • More than 40 ILO standards address health and safety on the job. They include Occupation Health and Safety Convention (No. 155), Occupational Health Services Convention (No. 161), and Promotional Framework for Occupational Health and Safety Convention (No. 187).
  • The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) guidelines call on multinational enterprises to “take adequate steps to ensure occupational health and safety in their operations,” including supply chains. (Chapter V: Employment and Industrial Relations, Sec. 4(d)). The OECD’s member governments, including the United States, have negotiated and endorsed these guidelines.
  • In the United States, the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) gives workers the right to a safe workplace.  This includes the right to know about job hazards and protections; the right to request an investigation of a potential OSHA violation; and the right to refuse dangerous work.  Employers are prohibited from taking adverse action against workers who exercise their rights under OSHA.

“The stronger the union, the safer the workplace.”

–International Labour Organization

No workplace is safe unless workers have rights and a voice to insist on the realization of their rights.  Workers have the right to know about workplace hazards, to have them investigated, and to refuse dangerous work.  In the United States, those rights are part of the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA).  Workers also have the right to organize unions and address safety and health concerns in collective bargaining agreements.

Unions are vital to workers’ health and safety for three core reasons:

  • Trade unions have historically played a pivotal role in the development and enforcement of occupational safety and health regulations in many countries.
  • Well-informed trade union leaders can provide an important counter balance to outside business pressures to lower cost and compliance levels by ensuring that safety measures are fully incorporated into the costs of doing business.
  • Government and employer respect for trade union demands on health and safety signals workers and managers alike that the workers are vital to improving the industry.

The Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh

The sustained global media, NGO, and government attention on the garment factory tragedies in Bangladesh have spurred many apparel companies to join with unions in a worker safety program that strengthens workers’ voices and protects their rights.

That program is the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh.

The Accord involves unions both in the governance and implementation of the program.  The Accord’s executive committee includes an equal number of representatives of trade unions and companies.  The Accord’s training teams also include trade union representatives to educate workers about their rights, including the right to refuse dangerous work.  As a signatory to the Accord, trade unions can initiate binding arbitration against another signatory to compel it to comply with the terms of the agreement.  By fostering a more equal relationship between companies and unions, the Accord helps to address workers’ fear about speaking up to defend their safety and their rights. This is model for safety and health that should be strengthened in Bangladesh and replicated elsewhere.

ILRF helped develop the Accord and is a witness signatory.

ILRF campaigns to end preventable work-related injuries and deaths and to secure compensation for victims.

In April 2013, at least 1,135 workers lost their lives in the building collapse at Rana Plaza in Bangladesh.   The collapse should never have occurred and the workers should never have been trapped in the building. The owners of the five factories housed at Rana Plaza were aware of the cracks that had appeared in the walls the day before, and workers had wanted to stay home the day the building collapsed.  They did not have the right to refuse dangerous work.  In November 2012 at least 112 workers were killed in the Tazreen Fashions factory fire; they had wanted to evacuate earlier when they smelled smoke but supervisors directed them to remain at their workstations.

ILRF campaigns to bring justice to workers injured in these tragedies and to families who have lost loved-ones.

We call on all companies whose products were made at Tazreen and Rana Plaza to pay their fair share of victim compensationWe call on all apparel companies whose clothing is made in Bangladesh to sign onto the legally-binding and enforceable Accord on Fire and Building Safety