ILO report looks at green economy's impact on occupational safety

The transition to a green economy represents a new opportunity to entrench high standards of health and safety in the workplace, a new report by the International Labour Organization (ILO) says.

The report, entitled “Promoting Safety and Health in a Green Economy,” says that while promoting a greener, low-carbon economy provides many benefits to the environment and society, it does not necessarily make jobs healthier and safer. Occupational risks must be identified and managed from the start.
“Awareness on the impact of new and emerging risks linked to green jobs is necessary,” the report says. “There is an unprecedented opportunity to guarantee, from the onset, that green jobs are safe and healthy for workers, and, at the same time, that they minimize negative impacts on the environment and communities.”

According to the report, released in advance of World Day for Safety and Health at Work (April 28), “green jobs” refer to jobs protecting biodiversity and occupations that play a central role in “greening” industries, from mining and agriculture to industry and services, such as transport.

The report looks at occupational risks in both traditional sectors, such as mining, forestry and construction, and in new, green industries, such as solar and wind energy, hydropower and bio-energy. Traditional sectors will continue to provide the bulk of all employment, it notes, yet also contain most occupational health and safety risks. Making these industries more energy efficient and sustainable provides a major opportunity to make these sectors safer and healthier.

The introduction of greener practices could reinforce and expand efforts to tackle a range of major health hazards, from chemicals and pesticides to asbestos, and to reduce the high accident rates that are common in these sectors, the ILO says.

In the mining industry, for example, increased planning of the processes and technologies of a project can allow managers to incorporate both environmentally friendly and better OHS measures from the beginning.

“Such an approach would contribute to a significant increase in the protection of workers’ safety and health, and the reduction of greenhouse emissions and contamination. Therefore, health, safety and environmental excellence must be among the key parameters on which corporate governance performance of mining companies should be evaluated,” the report says.

Green industries, the report says, also present their own hazards. In the new field of wind energy, for example, workers manufacturing windmills may be exposed to chemical and physical hazards and may also develop illnesses, such as dermatitis, dizziness, sleepiness, and liver and kidney damage.

Moreover, installing and maintaining turbines bring risks similar to those prevalent in construction, such as falls from heights, musculoskeletal disorders, electrocution and injuries from working with rotating machinery and falling objects.

“As the green economy develops, it is critical that the safety and health of workers are integrated into policies for the creation of green jobs,” the report says.

The transition towards energy-efficient construction and sustainable refurbishment requires skills development and training far beyond those for traditional buildings, the report also says. Therefore, capacity building for employers, designers, contractors, managers and workers is fundamental to equip them with the new skills and risk prevention methods required to deal with these challenges.

In the area of waste management and recycling, which the ILO identifies as one of the fastest growing sectors of green employment, new technologies designed to preserve material performance quality are likely to bring increased risks. New materials and products, collected as waste, as well as waste-to-energy processes may also increase exposure to hazardous chemicals and accidents, like explosions.
“A study of working conditions in recycling centres in Sweden, for example, identified several risks and found a high frequency of injuries,” the report says. “It concluded that there is a clear need for preventive actions in several areas, such as better machinery and equipment and more training, especially in handling hazardous waste. Workers at a UK-based electrical waste recycling facility suffered from mercury poisoning, generated by the recycling of eco-light bulbs containing mercury, due to poor work practices.”

The report also addresses the growing problem of waste picking, a practice in which people comb through garbage dumps looking for sellable objects. As hazardous and toxic waste is often not separated from domestic refuse, workers’ health is seriously endangered.

It is estimated that there are between 15 and 25 million waste pickers in the world, the report notes, most of them poor. “For waste picking to become a green and decent job, waste pickers need to be able to organize and work in an improved environment, and children should not be allowed on disposal sites.”  

To address this situation, a number of basic and low-cost measures could be put in place, the report says, such as better machinery and equipment, improved disposals layout, protective equipment, washing facilities and sanitation, and basic safety and health measures and training, especially in handling hazardous waste. All these measures would contribute to improved working conditions and to the quality of life of waste pickers and their families.

It is essential that managers assess and address OHS risks in both traditional industries and in the creation of jobs in emerging industries, the report concludes. One effective way to do this is to support approaches such as “prevention through design.”

“A true green job must integrate health and safety into design, procurement, operations, maintenance sourcing, use and recycling,” it says. OHS mechanisms need to integrate the greening process into their policies and programs of action. Social dialogue among representatives of government, workers and employers is central to the prevention and management of occupational hazards and risks.

“Moving towards a green economy implies setting higher standards for environmental protection while, at the same time, incorporating workers’ safety and health as an integral part of the strategy. The greening of the economy serves as an ideal platform for comprehensive methods to protect the workers, the general environment and the surrounding communities,” said Seiji Machida, head of the ILO’s program on safety and health at work and the environment.

“Only then will we be contributing to an environmentally sustainable and socially inclusive outcome; only then, will we achieve safe, healthy and decent work in a green economy.”