UN evaluates principles to ensure safe and healthy workplaces

Pictograms representing chemical hazards are recommended by the United Nations for communicating information about chemicals to workers
Public Domain C. Lepisto

It is estimated that one worker dies every 15 seconds from toxic exposures at work.
--Baskut Tuncak, Special Rapporteur of the UN HRC

While world leaders steal the headlines in New York this week at the UN General Assembly, the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) will be meeting in Geneva. Alongside a full agenda discussing war, poverty and injustice, the Council will receive a recommendation on 15 key principles to ensure safe and healthy workplaces.

The principles have been put forward by Baskut Tuncak, the special rapporteur on the implications for human rights of the environmentally sound management and disposal of hazardous substances and wastes (SRtoxics for short). He has been working in this role since 2014 and brings to his mission a decade of experience as an industrial chemist in addition to credentials as an attorney dedicated to practicing law in the public interest.

Tuncak prefaces his report with the shocking figure at the top of this article, based on the study Global Estimates of Occupational Injuries and Work-related Illnesses 2017 by Päivi Hämäläinen, Jukka Takala, and Tan Boon Kiat. One death every 15 seconds equates to 2.78 million deaths globally attributed to work (5% of global total deaths).

In his report to the 39th Session of the Human Rights Council, Tuncak sets out 15 principles which he believes are essential to ensuring decent work for all. The principles are summarized below, set out out in the three main categories defined in the report.

Principles on duties and responsibilities to prevent exposure

Seven principles establish duties, including that nations and businesses are responsible to ensure worker protection, hazard elimination is “paramount”, workers should not be exposed to hazardous substances without their knowledge and consent, the duty to protect workers extends beyond national borders, and making statements that distort science to perpetuate chemical exposure should not be protected as free speech. The 7th principle observes that the duty of protecting workers simultaneously protects families, communities, and the environment.

Principles regarding information, participation and assembly

Every worker as a “right to know,” which means access to information about the hazards of the chemicals in their work, in a form which they can understand. Such hazard information must not be protected as confidential information. Inseparable from the right to safe and healthy work is the right of freedom of assembly, including the formation of unions without discrimination and protections of worker representatives as well as whistle-blowers.

Principles regarding effective remedies

Governments should establish criminal penalties for any persons allowing workers to be exposed to chemicals that are known (or should be known) to be hazardous. Workers exposed to substances which can cause diseases should be eligible for compensation from the time of exposure – not years later after disease finally becomes apparent, and if exposure has occurred, the burden of proof should not be on the worker to show that the exposure caused their illness, but should shift to require the employer to prove the contrary.

The final principle will certainly prove the most controversial: Laws should hold companies responsible for abuses of workers’ rights to a healthy and safe workplace even when the workers are located abroad. The special rapporteur makes this very clear, elaborating on this principle:

“States should ensure that their laws provide for jurisdiction over workers’ exposures to toxic substances that occur abroad.”

The vision is ambitious, but clearly essential to a goal that should be pursued relentlessly. A lot of progress already has been made; for example, the pictograms pictured here were recommended by the UN and are now being adopted by countries throughout the world as a mechanism for communicating the hazards of chemicals to workers - especially facilitating the communication beyond borders by harmonizing the tools for good communication.

But the tragic statistics cited by Baskut Tuncak, and the dreadful case studies he lists in his report, are proof that a lot more needs to be done. His next mission will be to document how governments implement, or plan to implement, these principles.

UN evaluates principles to ensure safe and healthy workplaces
It is estimated that one worker dies every 15 seconds from toxic exposures at work

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