By Mofor Samuel
When one asks people how they think health and work are related, many will talk about occupational health -the work place’s influence on employees’ health. However, the relationship between health and the world of work is much more complex. The World Bank’s 1993 World Development Report, Investing in Health was a landmark publication in introducing a more comprehensive understanding of the many links between a nation’s health status and its economic growth produced by the world of work. Apart from discussing how and why economic growth can improve the health status of the poor, it also shows the reciprocal of health as a commodity necessary for economic development: health and health services should not merely be seen as a cost to society, but as a worthwhile investment.
If they are to improve their earnings and lift themselves out of poverty, people in developing countries would need rules that protect their rights. The International Labour Organisation’s (ILO) core labour standards are at the centre of a worldwide effort to stop the inhumane or degrading treatment of workers.
Beyond the ILO’s four key principles which are: to give workers’ freedom of association- the right to form trade unions and the right to collective bargaining (the process of trade unions negotiating with employers on pay and conditions); to end all forms of forced labour; to eliminate child labour; and to eradicate discrimination in employment and jobs; the ILO supports specific standards such as health and safety.
The many occupation involve in modern civilization bring with them dangers to life and health including trauma which may occur in mines and the use of machinery and electricity. Jobsite health problems are classified into two groups- diseases and accidents (injuries). Furthermore, health hazards can only be considered occupational when there is exposure, known risk and disease diagnosed.
The most obvious other risks are those which may enter the body by the paths of inhalation, ingestion, inoculation and surface contact. Any of the major system of the body may be involved- the skeletal system, lungs, cardiovascular system, blood, alimentary system, liver, nervous system and the skin. Workers may be involved not only in factories and workshops but also in the open air.
Chemical hazards involve those workers handling any of the following products: elements like lead, phosphorous, mercury, benzene etc and compounds like coal tar derivatives including trinitrotoluene (TNT), tar and asphalt. Also corrosive poisons (strong acids and alkalis), and many others.
Among those substances causing pathological conditions are those due to inhalation of industrial dust, eg silicosis and asbestosis (pneumoconiosis) which seriously affect the lungs of miners and workers using asbestos.
Agricultural workers maybe exposed to the effects of modern insecticides and fertilizers, parasitic and bacterial infections eg tetanus. Lung infections are also common.
Doctors, nurses and scientists, unless adequately protected by immunization, may be at risk in respect of infectious diseases and also from x-rays and radio active substances unless proper protection is provided.
In so far as environmental conditions such as noise and the vain repetition of monotonous duties are concerned, the special senses and general psychology maybe involved.
In Cameroon, the National Social Insurance Fund pays 2 billion francs CFA annually as indemnities and social security benefits to some 2400 workers. Of course these workers come from companies and enterprises that are affiliated to the CNPS and pay their regular contributions to the fund. This group of workers makes up 7 – 10% of the working population. What about the vast majority of workers in the informal sector? Are they not exposed to occupational hazards or do the labour standards set up by the ILO not take them in consideration?
Attempting to answer these questions and many others is like going through a jigsaw puzzle. Understandably too, labour standards matter to poor people. Fairness to workers also diminishes the risk of social unrest. Above all strengthening their rights at work helps people to stand up to shocks such as financial crises or illness. The Ministry of Labour and Social Security has of recent been asking authorities of companies and establishments which have been experiencing social unrests to meet up with the social benefits and health demands of their workers. The case of the workers of the National Shipyard Authority can sited as one of such cases. The non compliance by the authorities of the National Shipyard Authority as far as respecting the conditions of work and salaries of the workers was concerned saw the minister calling them to order. At one point in time exclusion and social insecurity were the modus operandi in the National Shipyard Authority. This affected the health of the workers and their families directly as poverty immediately enveloped the livelihood of workers and their families.
Most security and safety measures are often ignored and neglected by both employers and employees alike. Health and safety is a huge concern for workers of the informal sector. Building sites for example claim around 100,000death a year worldwide and construction workers are three times more likely to be killed than other workers- construction being a major source of work for poor people.
Hardly do workers put on security gadgets like helmets, goggles, boots, overalls, gloves, ear plugs, dust proof devices and other devices necessary to guarantee their safety at work. Even the notion of First Aid Box is farfetched, worst still the notion of medical examination before and during work or employment is completely out of place. As long as the interest of the employer is met, every other thing can take care of itself.
Social insecurity has a very negative impact on the labour force and the company’s production. Investing in their employer’s health is not only a social responsibility but also a necessary investment to promote their company’s productivity and even long term survival: investing in worker’s health must be part of a company’s cost-benefit analysis. Companies are also discovering that investing in health is not just cost-effective from the view point of workers’ productivity, but can also be used to create a positive company image and attract many customers. There is increasing global pressure from consumer groups to offer decent working conditions, including health care services for employees.
Of course the world of work is not restricted to the private sector. The public sector also recognizes the importance of workplace for reaching important parts of the population- men and women. Government ministries, UN agencies and NGOs are giving more attention to the world of working their programmes and interventions.
Finally if their key breadwinner is badly injured or dies, a whole family can plunge into poverty. Health and safety laws with bite are therefore critical to reducing risk of such catastrophes.