Job Safety Does Not Happen by Accident

In Asia and the Pacific, health and safety issues in the workplace is gaining prominence. Photo: ADB
In Asia and the Pacific, health and safety issues in the workplace is gaining prominence. Photo: ADB

By Kristy Harrison

Health and safety on the jobsite involves more than simply enforcing rules and regulations. A culture of prevention, as well as innovative digital solutions, are needed to keep workers alive and healthy.

The International Labour Organization estimates that work-related injuries and ill health cost the global economy $2.99 trillion per year, or 3.94% of the world’s gross domestic product. The impacts on families and communities are immeasurable, and can span several generations, particularly when a worker is the sole breadwinner in the family.

An estimated 2.78 million men and women die from work-related injuries and illness each year. This equates to 7,500 people every single day and 5% of total deaths worldwide, according to a 2017 study from the Workplace Safety and Health Institute in Singapore. In addition, there are 374 million non-fatal occupational accidents each year, many of which go unreported.

Work-related illness, such as circulatory diseases, cancers and respiratory diseases, account for 86.3% of global occupational deaths, while fatal accidents account for the remaining 13.7%, the report found. Men are statistically more likely to die from all types of work-related illness than women, with the exception of communicable diseases, which inflict women at a rate 6.7 times higher than men. Work-place incidents also disproportionately affect the poor and vulnerable, in part due to lower-levels of education and higher likelihood of working in hazardous and laborious jobs.

  Asia is the unenviable position of being the world leader in work-related fatalities

Asia accounts for two-thirds of global work-related deaths by number (65%) trailing behind the next highest region of Africa (11.8%), according to the 2017 report. However, fatality rates per worker are slightly lower in Asia (12.99 deaths per 100,000 employees) than in Africa (17.39) but are significantly higher than all other parts of the world. Agriculture (including fishing and forestry) is one of the highest-risk industries in Asia, with 27.5 deaths per 100,000 people; three and a half times higher than high-income countries (7.8). Industry (construction, mining, manufacturing) accounts for 9.9 fatalities per 100,000 employees or two and a half times that of high-income countries (3.8). Fatality rates are also increasing in Asia, up from 9.7 and 24.0 deaths per 100,000 respectively in 2010.

There are many contributing factors to work-related deaths in Asia, including rapidly growing economies with a high dependency on manual labor; low use of technology; low education and training of workers; a construction boom; and often inadequate implementation of occupational health and safety regulation. These issues are likely to be exacerbated by continued urbanization and infrastructure development in ensuing years. For example, the ADB has estimated that infrastructure needs in Asia and the Pacific will exceed $22.6 trillion through 2030 or $1.5 trillion per year. This will require significant investment by both the public and private sector, and expansion and upskilling of the construction industry.

  Creating a culture of prevention saves lives on job sites in Asia

Public and private financial institutions have a role to ensure that financed companies and projects adhere to occupational health and safety standards. This includes national regulations, ILO core labor standards and World Health Organization standards, and where possible, the adoption of international standards such as ISO 45001. In addition to being sound ethical and financial practice, effective health and safety management also helps to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals.

At ADB, the 2009 Safeguard Policy Statement requires borrowers to provide workers with a safe and healthy working environment, and to take steps to prevent accidents, injury, and disease arising from the work environment. They are required to apply preventive and protective measures consistent with international good practice, as reflected in internationally recognized standards such as the World Bank Group’s Environment, Health and Safety Guidelines. They must also document and report any occupational accidents, diseases or incidents. These same requirements must cascade down to contractors and sub-contractors.

Reporting of fatalities, injuries and lost workdays are the mainstay of health and safety statistics. However, these so-called “lagging indicators” record events that have already occurred, when the system has failed to protect an employee’s safety. In contrast, “leading indicators” aim to identify and prevent adverse events before they happen. Examples include hours of health and safety training per employee; number of hazard observations reported; number of near misses reported; number of internal audits; and hours of equipment maintenance. Such indicators provide an opportunity to identify and manage hazards before they result in an injury. There is an inverse relationship between leading indicators and the number of health and safety incidents, particularly when combined with a strong health and safety culture by management, according to research conducted in 2016.

  Job safety in the digital age

Health and safety is changing with the advent of digital technology. Companies are increasingly turning to technology to both avoid and mitigate health and safety risks. Applications include e-learning using gamification and/or virtual reality to train and upskill staff.

Gaming and virtual reality was first applied in military applications and commercial aviation, starting in the early to mid-20th century. Applications for occupational health and safety were first investigated for high-risk industries such as the mining and construction starting in the late 1990s. It is only very recently that gaming has moved outside of military and research institutions to become commercially available.

At the Super Hospital construction project in Gødstrup, Denmark, application of 3D gaming for health and safety training between 2012 and 2017 eliminated fatalities and reduced workplace accidents to below half the national average. In the United States, United Kingdom and Canada, virtual reality is being used to train staff in high risk occupational activities such as working at height, dropped tools prevention, harness inspection, hot work, mobile plant, asbestos identification, legionella inspections, and mine rescue training. In New Zealand, the government has partnered with private industry to develop a series of online games aimed to upskill the technology, hospitality and construction industries. The construction version of the game includes a strong focus on worksite safety as well as logistics and financial management.

Digital technology has several advantages over conventional health and safety training methods:

  • Training is standardized, ensuring that all employees receive the same quality of content;
  • Language barriers and low education can be overcome through visual images and role play;
  • Employees can be trained and practice new skills in real world scenarios with little risk to themselves or others;
  • There is no need for a specialist trainer to be on site to run the courses;
  • Attendance, progress and feedback can be remotely assessed;
  • Training courses can be regularly updated and rolled out across a business or industry;
  • Smartphones and inexpensive VR viewers make technology widely available;
  • There is growing evidence that gaming is more efficient and effective for learning than conventional training methods.

With the rapid adoption of digital technology, smartphones, combined with the availability of cheap virtual viewers, this technology is set to burst into Asia in the near future.