Informal sector workers vulnerable to disasters

DAVIS Mulenga.

THE International Labour Organisation (ILO) estimates that two million workers worldwide die annually from work-related hazards.
Developing economies, Zambia inclusive, account for 80 percent of the global burden of the devastating consequences.
Experts say the occupational health and safety (OHS) related deaths are more than what malaria claims annually.
Isn’t gob-smacking why this is not being characterised a global crisis?
Therefore, it came as a huge relief when I learned that University of Africa (UoA), a Lusaka-based distance learning university, was aggressively raising awareness to draw attention to role-players and decision-makers to the spike in work-related fatalities, injuries and diseases.
Is someone listening there, and taking steps before this turns into a national catastrophe of gigantic propositions? That is the million-dollar question.
“There is a growing body of evidence pointing to a surge in occupational health and safety risks due to shifts and impacts in the economy and environment as well as the use of new technology. This presents new and significant risks for workers,” says Derricks Munyenyembe, a lecturer in the university’s faculty of bio-medical sciences.
In his presentation at a recent week-long OHS workshop, conducted by his faculty for the edification of students pursuing occupational health sciences, Mr Munyenyembe cited the recent Black Mountain deaths as an eye-opener to the rise in occupational risks.
He said the incident that left scores of artisanal miners dead validated emerging research that showed that a vast number of workers, especially in the informal, mining, construction, agriculture and other sectors were more vulnerable to increased work-related deaths, injuries and diseases.
He stressed that inadequate OHS resources and infrastructure amplified the dire consequences for workers.
He said Zambian workers in the nation’s large diversified informal economy were more vulnerable as that sector remained largely unregulated with limited capacity to carry out health and safety inspections by designated local authorities and the central government.
“In a labour-constrained market such as ours, more people are forced into taking up hazardous jobs both in the formal and informal sectors, but vulnerability was much higher in the informal economy where there is less awareness of the need to implement OHS practices. This increases existing workers’ vulnerabilities.
“The scores of deaths the nation witnessed at the so-called Black Mountain in Kitwe serve as an eye-opener to the increased risks for workers.
“It is quite clear from the Black Mountain incident that the victims needed to have income at any cost. The aftermath also showed that there was little awareness about workplace hazards,” says Mr Munyenyembe.
On a wider scale, the increase in workers’ vulnerabilities was being driven by the use of new sophisticated machinery and equipment, coupled with technology, resulting in changes in terms of jobs performed by workers.
Alluding to the economic implications for OHS implementation, Mr Munyenyembe called for shift of perceptions by investors to see it as an enabler to deliver greater value rather than a cost.
According to him, an important indicator of OHS success is in reduction of work stoppages arising from fatalities and injuries.
The assumption was that this led to increased productivity, and it should motivate investors to make a reasonable investment in OHS services for their workers.
The United Kingdom’s Economic and Social Research Council in 2010 indicated a spike in production costs for businesses’ negligible investment in OHS interventions. Therefore, it made business sense offer OHS support to workers.
Mr Munyenyembe said OHS had become integral to the world economy, especially emerging economies such as Zambia where the magnitude and complexity of workforce required to drive the economic growth and made it imperative to implement best practices.
“There are a number of interventions employers can implement to protect the health and safety of employees in the context of OHS being a business enabler to deliver value to shareholders, workers and Government in the short and long term.
“This will not only harness the health, well-being and safety of workers, but will also help to attract investment in productive sectors of the economy, leading to creation of the much-needed jobs,” he says.
On implementation of the national policy on OHS, Mr Munyenyembe called for consensus among stakeholders to ensure coverage of all sectors, including the informal sector.
“OHS, being a multidisciplinary science primarily aimed at the protection and promotion of the health of workers by eliminating occupational factors and conditions hazardous to them, entails that stakeholders, who included Government, employers, employees, unions and the public, worked together to put in place a comprehensive national OHS policy.
“Implementation of a national OHS policy would be beneficial for workers as it would extend coverage to even the informal sector, spread awareness among stakeholders and lead to development of appropriate OHS infrastructure and skills,” he said.
Currently, the Factories Act and Occupational Safety Act govern Zambia’s OHS field.
The two pieces of legislation place a general responsibility on business owners, especially in manufacturing, mining and other industrial operations, to provide health, safety and welfare of their workers, as far is reasonably practical through provision of safe working environment and systems of work, and suitable information, instruction, training and supervision.
Interestingly, however, the two pieces of legislation do not provide blanket access to OHS services while the Workers Compensation Act, seen in some ways intended to encourage employer provision of OHS services, only served to ensure workers injured at work received appropriate medical care and lost earnings relating to on-the-job injury or fatality.
An overview of trends in the last decade indicated new jobs had also emerged arising from climate change adverse effects and deployment of new technology. Some of the more dramatic changes included automation and use of robots in the workplace.
I must hasten to say the desired future for the workplace in Zambia in both the informal and informal sector, must predominantly provide certainties that do not expose workers to higher risks while reinforcing good OHS practices and responsibilities.
OHS workplace should be assessed by certainties that do not expose workers to higher risks while reinforcing good OHS practices and responsibility.
The author is a communications consultant.

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