Virtually every occupation is prone to hazards. The magnitude, however, varies across jobs, sectors, geographic regions, and individuals. Data from International Labour Organisation (ILO) reveal that one worker dies every 15 seconds, while 153 are involved in work-related accidents globally. With growing industrialisation, fatalities are expected to reach thousands. This explains the zeal of Lagos State governor, Babajide Sanwo-Olu to enforce occupational safety guidelines in workplaces across the state.
According to the governor, safety in workplaces and the worker would no longer be taken for granted. The governor speaking at an Occupational Safety and Health Conference, in commemoration of the year’s ‘World Day for Safety’, said, “we will ensure strict enforcement of safety rules and guidelines that are geared towards making the workplace safe and hazard-free.’’
The ultimate aim of occupational health and safety work is to ensure that employees can and are able to do their work effectively in safe, secure and healthy environments. In practice, employers are obligated to assess workplace risks, provide occupational healthcare, and support the employees’ working capability.
Occupational health and safety may be seen as a burden, but it has considerable benefits for the company. On the one hand, it saves costs for the company when such occupational hazards occur. For instance, based on the estimates of the International Labour Organisation (ILO), the economic costs to companies and economies are significant. ILO estimates that more than 4 per cent of the world’s annual GDP is lost as a consequence of work-related injuries and diseases.
On the other hand, healthy employees enjoy their work more and are guaranteed to be more productive.
Work-related deaths, injuries and diseases take a particularly heavy toll in developing nations, where large numbers of people are engaged in hazardous activities in areas of agriculture, construction, logging, fishing and mining among others.
Death and disability resulting from hazardous work is a major cause of poverty, affecting entire families. The poorest and least protected, often women, children and migrants, are among the most affected.
It is for these reasons that a programme called “Global Action for Prevention on Occupational Safety and Health” (OSH-GAP) has been selected by the ILO as one of the Office’s five flagship programmes. OSH-GAP, which became operational in 2016, was designed to develop and implement sustainable and scalable actions, informed by current knowledge, as well as research and best practices.
In Nigeria, there is little compliance with basic safety measures in industries such as manufacturing, agriculture, mining. This is particularly true for quarrying and construction where workers are exposed to heavy-duty equipment, biochemicals, emissions, harmful liquids, hazardous materials, etc.
Indigenous and foreign companies in the country have taken advantage of the weaknesses in labour administration to perennially exploit and expose most of their employees to extreme workplace hazards and dangers.
Over the years, there have been several reports and news features across several online and newspaper platforms providing coverage of workplace issues all over Nigeria, including workplace maltreatment, abuse, withholding of salaries, exposure to hazards, negligence and deprivation by Indian, Lebanese, German and Chinese industries to their Nigerian employees. Unfortunately, little has been done to address this elephant in the room and concerned authorities continue to turn a blind eye to it.
Some of the affected employees who sought press coverage of their ordeal stated that the foreign nationals go to extreme length to suppress and muzzle their legitimate complaints; ranging from indiscriminate dismissal of dissenting voices, physical abuse, bribing the Nigeria police to intimidate and silence anyone who challenges the management of the company on the matter, among others.
The government at all levels have been negligent and abdicated this sacred duty for too long; thus, giving the industries the latitude and leeway to continually expose the Nigerian employees to constant dangers and neglect without consequences.
There is an urgent need for government to do more than the habitual lip-service it renders to the issue anytime a case is at the public forefront; or in speeches delivered on annual occasions such as World Day for Safety or Workers Day.
It is imperative for the Federal Ministry of Labour and Employment to be decisive on this issue. The ministry is responsible for the management of the relationship between employers and employees both at the private and public sectors nationwide.
There is a pressing need for the ministry to create an exclusive unit that will be charged with monitoring compliance to health and safety standards in workplaces nationwide. The unit will be made up of personnel that will be trained and equipped to function effectively in the role. Their activities will include amongst others; enforcing workplace safety standards, routine and unannounced visits to different workplaces to monitor compliance, taking punitive actions to sanction and prosecute defaulters, creating a support desk to receive complaints from employees for onwards investigations and taking necessary actions. The unit may also seek cooperation and synergy with the health ministry, non-governmental organisations, and advocacy groups in the attainment of this objective.
Industries and firms operating in Nigeria need to put more effort into making the workplace safer and healthy for employees. This can be done by deploying global best practices and workplace safety procedures such as quality protective gears, insurance plans, medical services and efficient waste disposal methods that will be monitored and censored by coordinated Labour Ministry units at the Federal and State levels.
Agencies such as Lagos State Safety Commission and similar ones in other states must channel more energy and resources in the pursuit of this objective. The dormancy and inactiveness that is typical of such government agencies must be minimised to the barest minimum, while capacity is built to enhance performance. States with no such agencies should urgently create one to address workplace safety condition matters.
Labour and trade unions must realise that in addition to the clamour for better salaries and wages, there is a need for them to contribute to advocating for a safe and healthy atmosphere for workers.