Role of unions in enhancing occupational safety

WHILE at work, Critus Mukasalu and Gift Tembo were involved in an accident which left them with life-threatening burns on their bodies.
This accident happened on December 31 last year at a Kabwe-based company while the duo was working in the furnace.
The victims and some of their colleagues blamed the company’s management, claiming the working environment was not safe as the accident was not the first at the company.
And responding to media queries after the accident, management at the company defended itself saying while it regretted the accident, had the two workers not ignored safety rules, the accident would not have happened.
“We do have safety measures in place and it is regrettable that this accident happened,” the company’s spokesperson said.
And at a Kabwe-based tannery, some workers allegedly suffocated because they were overwhelmed by the toxic stench emitted from cattle hides and chemicals.
This accident, like the first one, attracted the attention of the Central Province administration and department of Labour, who visited the two companies.
At this company, management was directed to prioritise the safety and health of workers to safeguard their lives because the environment they worked in posed a risk to their health.
These cases are among several others that have happened in different sectors like agriculture, mining, transport, manufacturing and construction where workers have either been injured or lost their lives during the course of their duties.
As economic activities grow and expand, occupational hazards are also likely to increase among workers in different sectors of the economy.
Deaths and ailments arising from occupational hazards remain a source of concern because of negative implications on the economy and families.
Sadly, in most cases, workers do not access adequate occupational health services.
If these services are provided, then they are not comprehensive and only limited to a few enterprises which can afford services.
In Zambia, accidents and ailments arising from economic activities are, however, yet to be established and compiled because there is no co-ordinated national reporting system for such incidents.
The International Labour Organisation (ILO) estimates that 2.3 million (this translates to 6,300 deaths every day) fatalities occur annually and are mainly because of occupational accidents and work-related diseases.
According to ILO country director for Zambia, Malawi and Zimbabwe, Alexo Musindo, about 350,000 deaths are caused by occupational accidents and close to two million by work-related diseases.
“Non-fatal occupational accidents affect an even bigger number [as] over 313 million workers are injured every year. Meanwhile, non-fatal work-related diseases are estimated to affect 160 million workers each year,” Mr Musindo explained.
He said this during a two-day Zambia Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU) training workshop on occupational health and safety held recently in Kabwe.
Mr Musindo said it is important that Government, employers and workers collectively work together if they are to successfully address the human and economic burden brought about by occupational accidents.
He urged unions to enhance their capacities in occupational health and safety, and this should be a major component that should also constitute collective agreements.
Labour unions, he said, need to focus on training of members in key aspects of occupational health and safety.
“Workers’ organisations such as ZCTU, in particular, need to be vigilant and play an active and influential role if the cause of occupational safety and health is to be advanced,” Mr Musindo said.
The ILO commended ZCTU for actively participating in reviewing of the construction regulations and drafting of the national occupational safety and health policy.
The foregoing processes were financially and technically supported by ILO, through the UN Joint Programme on Zambia Green Jobs.
“ILO is pleased to have partnered with ZCTU to ensure that this training takes place in order to build the capacity of ZCTU affiliates in occupational safety and health,” Mr Musindo said.
“I would like to assure you of ILO’s continued support in the future in order to make decent work a reality for all workers in Zambia.”
ZCTU is concerned that despite occupational health and safety being linked to economic activities undertaken in the country and being an important area which hinges on lives and health of workers, most labour unions neglect it.
However, ZCTU general secretary Cosmas Mukuka agrees that building capacity among workers on occupational health and safety is key in reducing occupational hazards.
Agriculture and transport are among sectors cited for the highest rates of death and injuries, while the construction industry is said to be among the fastest growing.
The informal sector in Zambia is growing at a fast rate, yet the working conditions are hazardous.
“Our economy is growing steadily, with growth being driven by communications, transport, financial intermediations, construction and manufacturing sectors,” Mr Mukuka notes.
“I must, however, emphasise that successful occupational health and safety programmes require the collaboration and participation of both employers and workers. The ultimate goal is to ensure that all occupational health and safety issues in the workplaces are addressed.”
Mr Mukuka says as the industries grow, occupational risks also increase, and the more workers are exposed to the risks.
He further said while the technological development and work organisation has changed, thereby putting more occupational health burdens such as stress on workers, the legislation does not cover these new risks.
ZCTU is therefore of the view that stakeholders must broaden and strengthen occupational health and safety regulations in order to cover the entire working population.
This should also be backed by facilities and resources to ensure efficient provision of occupational health and safety services which match with the growing economy.
“Effective health and safety programmes can help to save the lives of workers by reducing hazards and their consequences,” Mr Mukuka said.
“Occupational health and safety programmes also have a positive effect on both morale and productivity and, over and above, can save the employer a lot of money.”
Mr Mukuka urges Government to formulate a comprehensive national co-ordinated occupational health and safety research strategy.
This is critical in carrying out in-depth investigative work and performing long-range research in occupational health and safety.
To achieve broad improvements in occupational health and safety, ZCTU also needs to build its own capacity and actively participate in national policy discussions and national reviews of legislations.
The ILO also implores ZCTU to ensure that provisions of Conventions 155 and 187 are domesticated in order to give more efforts to national legislations on occupational health and safety.
The labour unions are expected to create awareness among workers on their obligations and enhance workers’ knowledge of national legal provision on occupational health and safety.

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