Occupational Health – The Need to Go Global

Guest blogger: Dr. Isobel Hoskins

I never come away from the APHA meeting without being inspired.

This year, the inspiring speech for me came right at the end. I attended the closing session almost by chance when I realised I had a little time. The theme was occupational health so as someone keen on global health I didn’t think it would be all that relevant. When the second speaker took the stand I realised how wrong I was.

Leo Gerard from the United Steelworkers Union showed how health and safety is a global issue and exactly why we need to address occupational health worldwide to match the globalisation of trade. Have you ever thought about who made the clothing you wear, the conditions they work under and the impact that has on their health?

He showed a short video about the Triangle fire – a fire that happened in 1911 in New York at a garment factory. Fire broke out in the factory and panicked workers rushed to the two exits only to find them blocked by fire or locked. The workers couldn’t get out and in desperation some even threw themselves from the upper floors to escape the fire. 146 of them died. This event was one of the drivers of health and safety regulation in theUSA. Those workers were low paid and not allowed to unionise and so negotiate their conditions.

Fast forward to 2010. Gerard described a fire at a garment factory in Bangladesh and guess what? The exits were locked. 29 people died trying to get out, some threw themselves from the upper floors. No regulations prevented this accident in Bangladesh and there was no union to help protect the low paid workers.

Nothing has changed except the geography.

In the rush of globalization, developed country companies are getting round regulation at home by exploiting places where there is none. What does this mean for regulation at home? It means it is under pressure. We could lose all that has been gained since the Triangle fire. In the race to the bottom and the lowest prices, people’s health is being put on the line.

Trade regulations preventing import into the US of goods made in sweatshops or by children, for example, could be a way of forcing global companies to adopt safe working conditions, said Gerard. Having stronger more global unions is another way. Leo’s union the United Steelworkers Union has just gone global – forging partnerships and mergers with other unions worldwide.

Individually I think we can make a difference as well- reading the label and knowing the reputation of companies you buy from could help prevent exploitation. Consumers have power….

Triangle fire: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Triangle_Shirtwaist_Factory_fire
Bangladesh fire: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/dec/14/bangladesh-clothes-factory-workers-jump-to-death

Dr Isobel Hoskins manages the Global Health database at CABI.