How to achieve better occupational health and safety conditions in your workplace

Photo: Associated Press/Amr Nabil

A lack of occupational health and safety (OHS) regulations in a workplace can carry far more than just work-related injuries, accidents and at worst, deaths. They carry a significant economic cost with them too. Such occurrences can be potentially damaging to a firm’s resources, assets, efficiency and its reputation amongst the general public.

Accidents in workplaces costs almost 4% of the world’s annual Gross Domestic Product (GDP). In Egypt, 273,000 workers suffered injuries relating to their working conditions in 2015.

According to the latest data from the International Labour Organization (ILO), in 2014, Egypt had 889 non-fatal occupational injuries per 100,000 workers. In the same year, 546,751 days of productivity were lost per non-fatal injury due to workers being temporarily unable to work. This means that in 2014, Egypt lost nearly 547,000 days of productivity in total thans to workers suffering non-fatal work injuries which incapacitated them. In 2015, there were almost 11 work-related fatal injuries per 100,000 workers, meaning more than 3000 fatal accidents in the workplace or due to injuries suffered as a result of working conditions.

To compare Egypt to another lower-middle income country with a similar size of population, the Philippines had 484 non-fatal occupational injuries per 100,000 workers in 2013. The same year, 109,761 days of work were lost per non-fatal occupational injury, and in 2015, there were just under four work-related deaths per 100,000 workers. The Philippines also had 0.1 OHS inspectors per 10,000 workers. There is no record of the number of inspectors in the ILO’s data on Egypt, but local media sources say there were 1,400 inspectors in 2019, with three entities across the country that require inspection.

These OHS shortfalls should certainly not be ignored as they have a significant negative impact on Egypt’s economy, which boasts a 31 million-strong workforce, affecting productivity and exports. A policy paper on the issues of implementing OHS in Egypt by the American University in Cairo’s (AUC) School of Global Affairs and Public Policy says that the “loss of well-trained workers, absences, expensive compensations, health-care expenses and interrupted production exacerbate the problem from being a health issue to being one that relates overall to sector efficiency and productivity.” Additionally, it also affects Egypt’s international competitiveness.

OHS regulations and their enforcement face multiple obstacles and challenges in Egypt. Despite the aforementioned figures, OHS regulations are enshrined in Egyptian law and the country’s constitution stipulates that the state is responsible for the protection of workers and their health and safety, according to the paper. However, a field expert and managing director of an occupational safety training company who spoke to the paper’s authors said that adherence to OHS regulations was around 40% at best. This lack of commitment is attributed to a poor understanding of the importance of OHS and a lack of education and specialized professionals in the field.

Egypt’s ministry of manpower did indeed establish a specialized agency to inspect places of work to ensure their compliance with OHS regulations, however, their inspectors frequently face obstacles to performing their jobs effectively.

While Egypt’s labor law obligates firms to keep records of work injuries to send to the manpower ministry, the law exempts industrial firms that employ less than 15 people and non-industrial firms that employ less than 50 people. This largely excludes much of the informal sector which makes up at least half of Egypt’s private sector, according to estimates.

These records are then processed and published in the country’s Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics (CAPMAS). According to them, there were 14,368 work-related injuries in 2018, a 6% increase from the previous year, a figure which is said to be far below the reality according to sources from within the manpower ministry who spoke to the paper’s authors.

The main problems with inspection, the paper says, include “the lack of clear strategy, the lack of autonomy of the inspectors, and the absence of sufficient funds and competent inspectors and technical equipment.” The ministry’s inspection agency is severely understaffed due to being unable to attract applicants with its low pay.

To compound this problem even more, while factories that hire more than 50 people are obligated by law to enforce an internal safety management system, workers frequently ignore the safety rules due to a lack of knowledge, awareness and a “safety culture.”

However, the policy paper recommends that employers and managers can do much on their own to address OHS issues within their own firms. There is no need to wait for the ministry to bring about sweeping changes across the country.

One of the most effective policies the paper proposes is the conducting of an internal dialogue between the employers, managers and workers of a given organization to achieve the goal of better adoption and adherence to OHS regulations, which ultimately means better working conditions.

The purpose of this dialogue is to achieve a mutual understanding between all the different stakeholders of all the issues pertaining to them and to find common ground. For example, managers having a civilized discussion with their employees about the importance of OHS regulations and allowing feedback from employees to suggest what would make working conditions and practices safer, rather than a top-down approach which offers no knowledge or explanation to the concerned workers.

This is a policy which employers and managers can take their own initiative on to start dialogues within their own organizations to create consensus around OHS. The paper cites an example where this policy was highly effective and successful. After Ahram Security Group began its own internal dialogue, it saw a significant decline in work accidents and an increase in its productivity. Repetitive accidents fell by 72% and the number of workdays lost to injury fell by 90%. The added perk was the workers’ loyalty increased and the firm achieved a higher rate of staff retention than before.

Constant dialogue between managers, employers and workers increases awareness of the importance of OHS and encourages a culture of safety in the workplace, as well as leading to constant improvements. Involving the workers in the process also boosts morale, improves a firm’s reputation and ability to retain employees, and boosts productivity and profits. The added benefit of a firm’s good reputation as a result of this are ethical consumers who will choose their products over others.

The paper also proposes that managers show leadership and incorporate OHS into their own work practices to lead by an example and instill a culture of health and safety throughout the organization.

Providing OHS training to workers is also very effective as it involves them in the process, provides knowledge and motivates them to change their attitude towards adherence to safety rules and protocols. It also encourages employees to work together to improve workplace safety.

Occupational healthy and safety in the era of COVID-19

In another story, Business Forward reported on the various measures firms should take to ensure the health and hygiene of their employees in the wake of the global COVID-19 pandemic.

While the nature of work might provide some firms with the privilege of conducting their operations remotely (and those that have that option should), this is not possible for many positions in industrial firms. In such cases, dialogue will still be very important to be held between employers, managers and workers on the best practices for slowing down the spread of the pandemic and to avoid infection.

Such dialogue will help spread awareness of the dangers and risks to life of COVID-19, encouraging employees to abide by safety measures more seriously. It will also help inform workers of the scientifically sanctioned methods of disinfecting themselves and their workspaces and how to avoid transmitting the virus.

Shaimaa Sabah, a warehouse pharmacist at the General Authority for Healthcare and Regulation (GAHAR), recommended hanging up posters clearly detailing the steps to wash hands properly to guarantee disinfection, according to the guidelines set by the World Health Organization (WHO).

The United States-based Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one of the world’s most highly cited authorities on public health, recommends employers adopt more flexible sick leave policies which would include “not requiring sick employees to present a doctor’s note as clinics and hospitals will very likely already be crowded and overwhelmed with other cases.”

The CDC also recommends that employers and managers invest in tools and equipment for their workplace that will help employees maintain cleanliness and hygiene. This can range from placing several alcohol-based hand sanitizers around the workplace to other indirect measures such as tissues to use for touching surfaces and and trash cans that can be opened by foot.

This article was edited on April 28, 2020 for minor corrections and to add more information under the “Occupational healthy and safety in the era of COVID-19” section to reflect current global circumstances.

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