A healthy and safe workplace is now a human right – but what difference will it make?

Malcolm Staves explains why the ILO’s adoption of the right to be protected against work-related injury is a landmark decision that will save lives

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A safe and healthy working environment is now a human right. Its adoption by the International Labour Organization (ILO) this year means the right to be protected against work-related injury and illness now sits alongside rights such as the abolition of forced labour and elimination of child labour.

It is a landmark decision that will save many lives, and it gives those of us in the business of protecting people at work another important lens through which to see our work. So why is it important?

People Management readers have a good working knowledge of occupational safety and health. You will understand the employer’s duty of care, health and safety regulations and international standards such as ISO 45001. You may even be managing a safety and health team.

From your standpoint, it would be completely understandable if you queried the additional value brought by the adoption of a safe and healthy work environment as part of the Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work. Safety and health international standards and legislative frameworks seem ample checks and balances alongside societal pressures from groups such as investors and customers. What difference, then, will safety and health becoming a human right actually make?

Estimates put the annual toll of lives lost to work-related accidents and illness at nearly 2.8 million worldwide. I and many like me in the safety and health profession think this is a conservative estimate. Certainly many millions more suffer serious injuries or life-changing illnesses as a result of the work they do.

This is not solely an issue for developing or emerging countries. The impact of mental illness on work across sectors worldwide is well documented. Workplace diseases, such as occupational cancer, remain a problem everywhere, and serious accidents at work are still happening in developed countries like the UK.

Managing occupational safety and health (OSH) must be a cross-functional collaboration including OSH practitioners, HR leads and clinicians, and there is clearly much more to be done if we are to reduce the human toll of work. The ILO’s decision to recognise a safe and healthy work environment as a human right gives a different perspective and a fresh impetus. So why do I believe this?

In human rights terms, the resolution means the right to return home safely at the end of a working day is ‘inalienable' or unconditional. It is universal, meaning all human beings, wherever they live and work, have a right to a safe and healthy workplace.

Human rights are a universally recognised framework of values. In fact, they are the only values system recognised globally, and state actors, such as governments, are duty bound to put in place frameworks and challenge violations where they confront them. Regulatory frameworks may differ from country to country, but human rights, in their universality, make us accountable to each other.

At the same time, international human rights law provides an essential framework and guidance to responsible and sustainable policy making, and I believe that in developing and emerging countries, the Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work can now guide the formulation of new safety and health regulations.

Speaking as a global VP of a multinational company, I can tell you that this can only enhance our chances of success in protecting people in our value and supply chains in those parts of the world.

I am not an HR professional but I know that members of the profession are advocates of human rights and are often responsible for helping their organisation maintain a clean bill of health on human rights issues. HR and OSH professionals are working ever closer in their businesses to shape work cultures that are safe, healthy, inclusive and fair. The ILO’s decision will open up fresh conversations between our two professions, and that can only be a good thing.

Today, on 1 December, at County Hall in London, I and other leaders and practitioners in safety and health, human capital and sustainability will discuss the landmark human rights ruling as part of a wider discussion on how organisations can better care for their people as part of the corporate sustainability agenda. At that event, I will be calling for governments and other state actors to put in place the framework, policies and control processes to position the health, safety and wellbeing of their greatest assets first and foremost. They must stand up and challenge violations of the human right to a safe and healthy work environment in their own countries and externally within their value chains.

Based on my experience as an OSH professional, the ILO resolution is a game-changer and will bring about legislative change across many countries where legislation is light, non-existent or not enforced. It could also result in more visibility within the human capital, social sustainability and environmental, social and governance agendas. This is an historic decision, and it will save many lives.

Malcolm Staves is global VP for health and safety at L’Oréal