Health & safety at work is fundamental. Let’s make it a fundamental right

It is vital that the UK government gets behind an international move to recognise health and safety as a fundamental right at work.

Commentary icon26 Mar 2021|Comment

Carolyn Jones
Carolyn Jones

Director, The Institute of Employment Rights

In March 2020, the Institute of Employment Rights published a report comparing the UK’s health and safety provisions against international standards. That report found that the UK has one of the most dismissive attitudes to health and safety protections for workers across all EU nations. Despite having taken a leading role in the development and support of international labour law in the first half of the 20th Century, the UK’s support of health and safety standards now exceeds only that of Romania and Estonia among all EU Member States.

Indeed the report found that Westminster is on a par with the governments of Saudi Arabia, North Macedonia and Cameroon in ratifying just six of the 36 up-to-date health and safety Conventions of the United Nations’ International Labour Organisation (ILO).

That report was written with a post-Brexit world in mind. Fast forward a year and health and safety provisions are now being examined against the backdrop of a pandemic that has taken the lives of over 125,000 people in the UK alone.

In March 2021, IER published a second report, this time highlighting the extent to which the UK’s regulatory bodies (both the government and the Health and Safety Executive (HSE)) have failed in their legal duties to protect workers during the Covid pandemic.

From the outset of the pandemic, workplaces were recognised as significant locations for the transmission of the virus. Yet the risks were massively downplayed by the government. In May 2020 Boris Johnson announced that ‘spot-checks’ by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) were making workplaces ‘Covid-secure’, ensuring that ‘businesses are keeping employees safe’.

In reality clusters of Covid outbreaks were emerging. Research by Rory O’Neill, one of the co-authors of the IER’s report, revealed that 40% of people testing positive for Covid-19 reported prior ‘workplace or education’ activity. And yet, the number of workplace inspections completed  by the HSE between May and September 2020 was 40% lower than the previous year. Convictions also fell, by 39%, despite workplace infections accounting for significant proportion of Covid cases.

In other words, at a time when Britain’s workplaces were the site of unprecedented danger, the UK’s health and safety regulatory body – the HSE – virtually disappeared as an enforcement presence.

What has become crystal clear over the last year is that workplace health is a public health issue. The health, safety and wellbeing of workers is a fundamental pre-requisite for a healthy, productive and economically efficient society. That means that our demands for a post-Covid world of work must include the fundamental demand for the protection and promotion of the health, safety and wellbeing of workers.

From the outset of the pandemic, workplaces were recognised as significant locations for the transmission of the virus. Yet the risks were massively downplayed by the government.

ILO Fundamental Rights at Work

In June 2019, at the 108th session of the International Labour Organisation’s (ILO) Centenary Conference, it was unanimously agreed by governments, workers and employers that occupational health and safety should be designated as a Fundamental Right at Work (FRAW). That decision, once implemented, would elevate health and safety to the highest level of international labour standards, increasing the accountability of governments and employers in saving lives at work.

That was before the pandemic struck. This week, (March 2021), the most influential occupational health and safety organisations in the world backed an ITUC led campaign calling on the Governing Body of the ILO to ensure that the 2019 pledge on FRAW is implemented at the ILO conference in June 2021.

The Collegium Ramazzini  (an international scientific society examining occupational and environmental issues), said: “Hundreds of millions of people worldwide are harmed each year by their work. Millions more die. This carnage is preventable, but only if the protection of workers from harm is given high priority and worker health and safety is recognized as a fundamental human right.”

Nick Pahl, CEO of the UK-based Society of Occupational Medicine, (the professional body for occupational physicians globally), said: “The Society of Occupational Medicine strongly supports the designation of occupational health and safety as an ILO Fundamental Right at Work. We urge the ILO Governing Body to act expeditiously to progress the decision of the ILO Centenary Conference.”

The International Commission on Occupational health (ICOH) President, Dr Jukka Takala said: “The ILO and ICOH have estimated that 2.8 million people die each year from work-related illness and injury’.   ICOH urges the ILO Governing Body to take action to progress the decision of the ILO Centenary Conference.’”

Welcoming the support of experts from across the globe, ITUC General Secretary Sharan Burrow said: “Governments and employers should listen to these leading experts. For far too long, protecting workers from work injuries and illness has had a lower status than other fundamental rights at work. Some employers and even some governments seem to think that the costs of doing business can be traded off against workers’ lives. Giving health and safety the legal status it deserves will right a historic wrong, and also boost efforts to bring the COVID-19 pandemic under control.”

Prevention of workplace illness was one of the objectives of the ILO from its very foundation in 1919. Making occupational health and safety a fundamental right at work — on a par with the prohibition of child and forced labour, discrimination at work, and the right to join a union, bargain collectively and ultimately to take strike action — would make employers and governments more accountable when they fall short and would signal that workers have the right to refuse to take unnecessary risks at work. It would drive better health and safety standards along the world’s supply chains and it would reaffirm the right of working people to be informed and consulted by their employers about the hazards in their workplaces.

It has been proven time and again that working with health and safety worker representatives, with joint management-union safety committees, keep working people and the public safer and healthier. Boris Johnson continually tells us that UK health and safety laws are ‘gold plated’ and that the UK has some of the best employment protection laws in the world.

It’s time to call him out on both counts and to demand that the UK supports the call for FRAW at the ILO Conference in June this year.

Carolyn Jones

Carolyn Jones

Carolyn Jones Carolyn Jones Carolyn is the Director of the Institute of Employment Rights