Health and safety at work can get ridiculed in more affluent countries as something nannyish and interfering – but for much of the developing world, it is a matter of life and death. Unsafe workplaces have the kind of casualty rates more likely to be associated with going to war rather than earning a living. Every year there are 2.8 million deaths because of accidents at work or from work-related diseases. And every single day more than a million people have a serious accident or injury at work – whether it falls on badly regulated building sites or from using dangerous machinery in factories. The figures are from the International Labour Organisation (ILO), the UN’s agency for working conditions, which this week published a report asking why so many of these accidents seemed to involve teenage workers. Guy Ryder, director general of the ILO, says: “152 million children, who should be in school, are working. And almost half of those children are engaged in hazardous work. For youth who are old enough to enter the labour force, the available data shows that they experience a 40% greater incidence of injury on the job than their older counterparts.”
Can’t say no
But why should young workers face such a higher risk of injury compared with adults? Valentine Offenloch, a programme officer for the ILO, has been in Myanmar working with the government to improve training and to make workers more aware of safety. Too often young people do not feel they can refuse to do something even if they think it might be dangerous, she says. “Young people feel they have to accept any job.” They might not have the experience or confidence to realise when the risks are too high. The consequences for young people who are badly hurt can be devastating. It’s a question of “survival,” she says. “It’s as fundamental as that.” If young people are breadwinners and are injured, they may no longer be able to work and support their family. “It’s a very sobering experience,” she says, to see so many people who have been maimed and harmed by such work injuries.
The type of industries where accidents typically occur in Myanmar, she says, are construction and agriculture. In agriculture, a common problem is the unsafe handling of pesticides, with young people being pushed into using toxic materials. “Farmers use Chinese or Thai pesticides, and they can’t read the instructions,” she says. It’s often young people, used as cheap casual labour, who might find themselves with the most dangerous work. The international research from the ILO has identified some factors likely to push up the rate of accidents among young workers.
Young workers are more likely to be new to a job. And the research indicates that during the first month of employment workers are four times more likely to have an accident. Youngsters make up a disproportionately high number of migrant workers, who might find themselves pushed into the most difficult and dangerous jobs, in a setting where they don’t speak the local language. These young workers are more likely to be lacking in education, skills and training and might not be able to recognise warnings and instructions. Whether it’s operating machinery, climbing ladders or using chemicals, inexperienced youngsters are likely to be more vulnerable to accidents. There are also suggestions young people might be more easily persuaded by peer pressure to go along with dangerous working practices, where older workers might be more cautious. The youngest workers are also more physically susceptible to toxins and hazardous materials, says the study.
Fewer child labourers
The report is calling for better protection and safety regulations to reduce the level of accidents. This high rate of work-related injuries is despite a more positive background in which fewer young people are in the workforce. In the past two decades, as access to schools has widened in many parts of the world, there has been a strong global trend for the number of young people in work to be reduced. Child labour, workers below the legal minimum age, has also fallen sharply – down by about 90 million between 2000 and 2016, according to monitoring figures from the ILO. But the level of injuries remains high – and the report warns that every day there are 37 million teenagers going to work in hazardous conditions that are more accidents waiting to happen.
Credit: Sean Coughlan for The BBC, 2 May 2018.