Dying to Work?: Why Health and Safety in the Work Place is an Important Economic Issue for Sri Lanka

This week ten workers in Bangladesh lost their lives in a deadly fire at a garment factory, another in a series of incident ranging from building collapses to fires that have claimed over 1,500 lives in the past year alone. This has brought new attention to working conditions in the garment industry in Bangladesh and has got everyone from policymakers and industrialists to human rights organizations and Western clothing brands very concerned. Sri Lankan stakeholders reading news of these incidents, however, can be content that such deadly working conditions do not exist here, and rightly so. Nevertheless, thinking more comprehensively about safety and health in the wider Sri Lankan work place context should be an important ongoing agenda. As Sri Lanka enters its middle-income transition, these issues become increasingly more relevant. Recognizing this, the Cabinet of Ministers in Sri Lanka has designated the second week of October as “National Occupational Safety and Health Week”. In this context, this article discusses the importance of occupation health and safety in ensuring a productive labour force in Sri Lanka and the public policy issues that must be addressed.


The ‘Hidden Epidemic’


Globalization, demographic change, and technological advancement, have witnessed a significant change in work environments around the world. These changes have resulted in a heightened need for proper health and safety at the workplace as it is important for moral, legal, and financial reasons. Ultimately, a healthy workforce will lead to enhanced social welfare and in turn, higher productivity.


Around the globe, every 15 seconds, a worker dies from a work-related accident or disease and every 15 seconds, 151 workers have a work-related accident. ILO estimates that over 2 million people die annually from work-related diseases and 321,000 people die each year from occupational accidents. Furthermore, 160 million non-fatal work-related diseases and 317 million non-fatal occupational accidents are recorded every year due to poor and inadequate Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) measures. The statistics are truly alarming. Occupational diseases remain largely invisible compared to industrial accidents. In rapidly changing working environments occupational diseases continue to increase as a ‘hidden epidemic’.


The other side of the story is the economic loss due to occupational illnesses and diseases. The annual loss due to occupational illnesses and accidents is estimated to be 4% of global GDP (ILO, 2003). Estimated total cost of occupational injuries and diseases was US$ 250 billion for USA in 2007 (1.8% of GDP), AU$ 60.6 billion for Australia for the financial year 2008-09 (4.8% of GDP) (Yun, 2012) and US$ 4.9 billion for New Zealand (3.4% of GDP) in 2004-05 (Access Economics, 2006). The total cost of occupational injuries mainly consists of non-financial human costs, costs of the lost production, medical costs, compensation for lost wages, production disturbance and administrative and legal overheads. It is not only the employers, workers and the governments who bear the costs of occupational injuries and diseases but also society as a whole as the financial and non-financial costs and negative consequences of occupational injuries and diseases ripple out.


Occupational Safety and Health in Sri Lanka: Critical Gaps


At present, OSH issues are mainly legislated under the Factories Ordinance No. 45 of 1942, which has separate provisions for health, safety and welfare of the employees. Workmen’s Compensation Ordinance Act No. 19 of 1934, Shop and Office Employee’s Act No. 15 of 1954, Municipal Councils by-laws and regulations also cover OSH related matters. Though the Ordinance has separate provisions for health and safety, it is quite obvious that the law has to be updated in response to the changes that have taken place over the last few decades in Sri Lanka. For instance, the construction industry in Sri Lanka has developed significantly in recent years and construction has transformed into a significant contributor to the national economy. Globally, this industry has been identified as one of the most hazardous among all industries, with the highest rate of accidents including deaths and disabling injuries. Despite this, the safety and health aspects of the construction industry remain at an unsatisfactory level in Sri Lanka (Halwatura and Jayatunga, 2011).


The country also does not have a formal reporting system to capture work-related injuries and diseases. Thus, statistical information related to OSH is less available and severely under reported. Inadequacy of information about occupational hazards is one of the major obstacles to prevent occupational fatalities and diseases effectively. However, with the available data, Ministry of Health estimates that nearly 15% of the total admissions due to injuries at the Colombo National Hospital in 2011 were work-related. The prevalence of occupational diseases could be much higher but they are hardly recorded as “work-related diseases”. It is estimated that only 1% of the estimated work-related accidents are reported in Sri Lanka in contrast to countries like Australia, New Zealand and Malaysia where the percentages of reported vs. estimated are as high as 89%, 88% and 79%, respectively (Wickramatillake, 2011).


In addition, at present, 60% of the country’s labour force is employed in the informal sector – a sector which is considered to be more difficult to regulate and monitor. Poor working conditions and capital limitations which lead to the importation and use of obsolete machinery and equipment, poor machinery maintenance, limited access to material and limited information on physical and health risks caused by their occupation are some OSH issues related to the informal sector in the country (De Silva, 2003).


Creating awareness and building capacity on OSH among the stakeholders (employees, employers, government officials, etc.) also remains a challenge. OSH should be viewed as a shared commitment of all concerned parties and an investment for a healthier and productive labour force.


Tackling the Problem: New Initiatives


In response to these concerns in ensuring safe work places in Sri Lanka, some promising initiatives on OSH are taking place at the moment.


A separate unit of the Ministry of Health – ‘Environment and Occupational Health Unit’ – has been established to work on matters related to OSH. The unit is responsible for the establishment of occupational health units at district level and awareness and training programmes for targeted high-risk groups including the industrial sector. Public Health Inspectors (PHIs) under the Ministry of Health maintain an OSH Register and carryout walkthrough surveys (physical inspections) to evaluate the environment, welfare facilities and waste disposal measures by using simple methods and techniques. Apart from these steps already taken by the Ministry of Health, establishing a good surveillance system to capture work-related diseases would definitely help to bridge the data and information gap on OSH in Sri Lanka.


A new piece of legislation titled, ‘Occupational Safety, Health and Welfare Act’ is already being drafted with the intention of ensuring safety, health and welfare of all persons at work, protecting against risks to safety or health, promoting a safe, healthy and decent working environment and providing consultation and co-operation between employers and workers on OSH. The proposed Act will be applicable to all places of work, including the public sector. Though the enactment of the new Act has been delayed for several years now, it is expected to become a reality soon. However, addressing the concerns of all parties involved should be done as OSH is a cross-cutting issue which encompasses many disciplines.


Examples and evidence from other countries which have strong OSH policies and laws (e.g., Japan, Malaysia, Singapore, and New Zealand) prove that the number of work-relates fatalities and diseases can be reduced significantly with such policies and laws. Steps have been taken to develop a “National Occupational Safety and Health Policy” for Sri Lanka by the Ministry of Labour and Labour Relations and the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health. A National Steering Committee and seven Working Groups on Occupational Safety and Health Policy Development are currently working towards formulating a national policy on OSH.


OSH is a cross cutting issue which needs everyone’s contribution and it should be considered as a shared commitment. It is true that much has to be done to promote OSH knowledge and culture in Sri Lanka but it is also true that there are several concerns that should be addressed. On the other hand, OSH measures should not be a burden to the employers. However, just because the problem is difficult to tackle it cannot be ignored. OSH is about human lives. It is about creating safer and healthy working places for the 8 million people employed in the country. It is about productivity enhancement through a healthy workforce, and ultimately it is about higher social welfare. Sri Lanka may be far ahead of Bangladesh. But aspiring to even higher standards, above our developing country peers, must be our goal.

Note: The author acknowledges the insights by Dr. Inoka Suraweera, Consultant Community Physician, Environmental and Occupational Health Unit, Ministry of Health, and Mr. Dittha de Alwis, Assistant Director General of the Employers’ Federation of Ceylon shared at an in-house discussion held at the IPS.