There is little pressure on the governments of the world, generally speaking, to introduce ergonomics regulations to protect workers. It can be indifference born of more pressing concerns, such as coping with apocalyptic circumstances like war and famine. Many countries can’t claim that excuse, yet see no reason to enact laws for the welfare of the work force. As of November, Singapore isn’t one of them. The city state off the tip of Malaysia, which is an industrial and economic powerhouse, launched The Code of Practice for Office Ergonomics or Singapore Standard 514 (SS 515) in November and is standing by to reap the benefits in improved productivity and economic growth.
A significant part of the labor force of Singapore works in occupations covered by SS 514, so the impact on the national balance sheet should be measurable. No doubt supporters and critics of ergonomics legislation in countries where it is an issue will be watching Singapore’s workplace statistics and economic indicators for changes. The figures will be useful ammunition in the fight.
The International Labor Organization (ILO), World Health Organization (WHO) and the global labor movement all advocate worker protection. The three bodies mark International Workers’ Memorial Day each year on Apr 28 by highlighting the need for a preventative safety culture worldwide to combat what the ILO describes as “a rising toll of occupation-related death, injury and sickness.” The global trade union movement wants that protection legislated, but the business community and politicians ideologically opposed to ergonomic regulation regularly drown out the labor voice.
In April 2005 the ILO reported that the risk of occupational disease has become the most prevalent danger faced by people at their jobs – accounting for 1.7 million annual deaths and outpacing fatal workplace accidents by four to one. The ILO found that in addition to job-related deaths, each year there are some 268 million non-fatal workplace accidents resulting in at least three days of missed work for the victim, as well as 160 million new cases of work-related illness. The ILO has previously estimated that workplace accidents and illness are responsible for the loss of some 4 percent of the world’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in compensation and absence from work.
On the April 28 memorial day this year millions of labor union members rallied around the world to remember lives lost on or because of the job, and also in support of statutory prevention. The theme for 2005 is employer accountability. According to Britain’s Transport and General Workers’ Union (TGWU) and the Centre for Corporate Accountability (CCA), “dangerous directors continue to evade the law.” Their research showed 620 people were killed and 60,177 people suffered major injuries at the workplace in Britain from April 2002 to March 2004, but only 23 directors were convicted of health and safety offences. And not one received a prison sentence.
A resource published on the web site of the International Ergonomics Association in 2004, “Combining economic and social goals in the design of production systems by using ergonomics standards. Computers & Industrial Engineering 47 (2-3), 207-222,” features an overview of the 174 relevant international ISO and European CEN standards. Many relate to worker protection. The resource doesn’t mention whether they are voluntary or backed by law, and if statutory, whether they are ever enforced. Unenforcable or unenforced standards – as the dearth of prosecutions of “dangerous directors” in Britain suggests, may be little better than nothing.
Britain has prevention laws on the books that could be described as indirect ergonomics standards. According to the Government’s Health and Safety Executive (HSE), “there are no specific regulations on human factors as such, but a human factors/ergonomics approach is incorporated into some regulations and guidance and is necessary in complying with all or parts of certain legislation.” Britain’s Trade Union Congress (TUC) dispels any notion that the country’s work force is significantly more protected by the health and safety regulations than workers in countries without them. TUC general secretary Brendan Barber said at the November 2004 TUC Conference that “enforcement is the single most effective tool the HSE has at its disposal for improving health and safety standards in UK companies and organizations,” but he and other TUC officials charge that the rules are not enforced. On its web site the TUC worries about “a dramatic drop in official workplace health and safety enforcement activity.”
Sweden is one of few countries with a robust national ergonomics standard. It was introduced in 1998. Many other countries can only manage the piecemeal approach
This article originally appeared in The Ergonomics Report™ on 2005-11-30.