The International Labour Organisation (ILO), marks today, April 28, as the World Day for Safety and Health at Work with the theme ‘‘The Prevention of Occupational Diseases’’. In its document to support this year’s observation, the organisation defines occupational disease as ‘‘a disease contracted as a result of an exposure to risk factors arising from work’’. In its own definition, the Wikipedia free encyclopaedia describe occupational disease as ‘‘any chronic ailment that occurs as a result of work or occupational activity……typically identified when it is shown that it is more prevalent in a given body of workers than in the general population, or in other worker populations’’.
The 2013 ILO document on this year’s day declares that ‘‘occupational diseases cause huge suffering and loss in the world of work. Yet, occupational or work-related diseases remain largely invisible in comparison to industrial accidents, even though they kill six times as many people each year’’. It is against this backdrop that the organisation has aptly chosen this years’ theme.
Pneumoconiosis is a deadly and globally well-known occupational disease; this is a chronic lung disease resulting from widespread exposures to silica, coal, asbestos and various mineral dusts in mining, quarrying, construction and other manufacturing processes. Others of concern include skin diseases (eczema, urticaria, sunburn and skin cancer); mental and musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) – conditions affecting the body’s muscles, joints, tendons, ligaments and nerves. The ILO notes that while pneumoconiosis is well known/reported and widespread, mental and MSDs are relatively new and on the rise across occupations in countries of the world. Other emerging risks include poor ergonomic conditions (poorly designed workplaces/workstations, bereft of basic tools and comfort); exposure to electromagnetic radiation and psychosocial risks. These conditions among others are being exacerbated by technological and social changes as well as global economic conditions.
In 2012, under the theme ‘‘Promoting Safety and Health in a Green Economy’’, the ILO made a case for closely linking safer and healthier work places and ‘‘decent’’ work for all to the worlds shift towards a greener and more sustainable economy. In other words, green economies should produce green (decent) jobs – jobs that not only empowers financially, but assures wellbeing, preservation of life and longevity.
This year’s theme focuses on prevention, which would mean tackling the root causes of occupational diseases. Most importantly, emphasis is again placed on the ‘’decent work’’ paradigm. In the words of the ILO, “prevention is key since it not only protects the lives and livelihoods of workers and their families but also contributes to ensuring economic and social development”. Continuing, the organisation maintains that “concerted efforts are needed at international and national levels to raise awareness about occupational diseases and to tackle once and for all the Decent Work deficits that are their root causes’’.
“Decent Work’’ is at the heart of the ‘‘prevention paradigm’’ being advocated by the ILO. It is about good jobs which apart from offering adequate wages, job security, reasonable career prospects, and worker rights; is carried out under safe working conditions – conditions that guarantees that the worker will live long enough to savour in retirement, his/her days of active and honest labour. The fact of the matter is that occupational diseases/illnesses develop over time and are caused either by the work itself or by the employees’ working environment.
In Nigeria today, the majority of available jobs – in both public and private sectors – are carried out under conditions that are very far from decent. The conditions in most offices/work locations in the country are so un-dignifying, short of saying horrifying. This is true (with limited exceptions though) for the private and public sectors – educational institutions, manufacturing, construction, quarrying, the media, transportation, etc. The armed forces and police as well as private security and paramilitary organisations/agencies are not left out. The absence of data will not allow us to appreciate the enormity of occupational afflictions that workers in Nigeria have suffered and are still suffering. The ILO notes that ‘‘globally, more than half of all countries still do not collect adequate statistics for occupational diseases’’. Where available, the data ‘‘concern mainly injuries and fatalities’’.
“In a study on the ‘‘Epidemiology of occupational disease among bricklayers in Nigeria’’, Soyinka, F. (1977), reported that ‘‘clinical and epidemiological investigations on 240 bricklayers in Nigeria show an incidence of 2,3% of cement-eczema, 2,0% of wear and tear dermatosis, and 2,8% of sensitivity against chrome’’. Continuing, the report noted that ‘‘the workers with longest professional contact with cement showed the highest incidence of cement-eczema, and sensitivity against chrome’’. In another study on the ‘‘Pulmonary functions of wheat flour mill workers and controls in Ibadan, Nigeria’’, Ijadunola and others (2005), concluded that ‘‘wheat flour-mill workers in Nigeria are at an increased risk of developing abnormalities of lung functions……, and the dominant pattern of respiratory disease among them is airway obstruction. Ijadunola and his team had noted in their abstract that ‘’the impact of grain dust exposure on lung functions of grain handlers in Nigeria has remained largely undocumented’’. This lack of documentation, as the ILO had noted, may not have changed much today.
As Nigeria grapples with the numerous socio-economic and political challenges confronting her as a developing economy, and with vision 20-20-20 in focus, it is expedient that she does not neglect to the background the serious issue of occupational diseases and the push to address its root causes which is linked to ‘‘decent work’’. The ILO reports that ‘‘many governments and employers’ and workers’ organisations are now placing greater emphasis on the prevention of occupational diseases’’ albeit, ‘’prevention is not receiving the priority warranted by the scale and severity of the occupational disease epidemic’’. As is the case in several instances and sadly too, the developed economies are far ahead in this push, leaving countries like Nigeria at the stage of either having not given this the serious consideration it deserves or are yet to have an articulated policy document with clear road map for implementation.
True, job creation is top on the agenda of our government at all levels and this is good – part of the fundamental responsibilities of the state to her citizenry. We have read about hundreds and thousands of jobs that have either been created or are being created at both federal and state levels. The questions will be what are the nature of these jobs, under what environments are (or will) employees (be) fulfilling their job roles and responsibilities, what minimum improvements will these jobs bring to their lives. It may not be so much about big remuneration, equitable remuneration as I will love to call it, but rather about the other elements of a ’’decent work’’ – ergonomics, safety, health and general wellbeing. These minimum elements bring real value and dignity into any job and in a way compensates for small pay package of today. They assure that the worker does not pass away through occupational disease/illness before he or she has the opportunity to enjoy his or her first pay cheque.
Nigeria must join the ‘prevention paradigm’’ move, at the heart of which is tackling the ‘‘decent work deficits’’ – the chief root causes of occupational diseases/illnesses. I strongly believe that a strong ‘‘decent work’’ culture will help reduce and may be eliminate corruption, engender patriotism, diligence, hard-work, commitment and patriotism as well as strengthen the value of ‘‘dignity in labour’’.
Emmanuel Obasi is a Lagos-based safety engineer
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