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Focus Archive

The Overseas Development Agenda and Occupational Safety and Health

March 1999
Roger Bibbings, MBE

The guest contributor to Focus this month is Roger Bibbings, MBE.

A year ago the UK Government Department for International Development (DflD) published the White Paper, Eliminating world poverty: challenge for the twenty first century. This sets out future UK strategy for overseas aid, targeting the poor countries. Yet, while it focuses heavily on important issue such as equal opportunities, environment and employment rights, it contains no comparable discussion of the need to raise standards of health and safety at work.

In fact, throughout the document the subject is not mentioned once - suggesting perhaps a complete failure to understand that economic development will create work related risks that need to be controlled and that developing countries do not have to repeat the occupational accident and ill health experience of countries such as Britain before they begin to put health and safety nearer the top of their development agendas.

There is on the other hand a commitment in the White Paper create a `forum' of key interests to build support for the objectives the Government's overseas development agenda and to report annually. RoSPA would hope this would provide a opportunity focus on what initiatives can be taken in the area of health and safety. Whenever funding for major projects is provided by bodies like the World Bank, there does now seem to be a much stronger emphasis on issues such as waste management and environmental protection. What needs to be probed, however, is why this does not seem to extend to equally important areas of risk management such as ensuring safety of those who are going to be working on such projects, or those who live close by.

In developing countries, as elsewhere in the world, besides imposing unquantifiable human costs, work related accidents disease are a major drain on economic performance. Yet this receives little attention, perhaps except in the wake of major disasters such as Bhopal, where catastrophic loss of life is accompanied by chronic long term health problems and environmental damage.

Rates of fatal and major occupational injury are substantially higher in developing countries than they are in the US and Western Europe. Despite the commitment of many major international companies to operate universally high standards of safety world-wide in conformity with principles of ethical investment, in practice they still experience real difficulties in achieving these in all the countries in which they operate.

Traditionally, bodies such as the UN's International Labour Office (ILO) have assisted with the development of legislative enforcement systems in developing countries and have deliver wide variety of training and provided a means of exchange of information between labour inspectorates worldwide. The World Health Organisation (WHO) may also have involvement in this area. The overall picture, however seems to be patchy, although the EU has recently been funding work in promoting programmes in Central and Eastern Europe, possibly because this is considered important in the context of future EU enlargement.

The only sustained input seems to have been by the international trade union movement, for example the training programmes organised by the Commonwealth TUC (CTUC) mainly for union officers in Commonwealth countries.

For its part RoSPA is anxious to consider a range of possible options for work in this area including:

While RoSPA already has some level of overseas involvement (mainly through consultancy with major clients where there is undoubtedly scope for developing 'good neighbour' health and safety activities at a local level), it needs good advice on how to identify and respond to new international development opportunities. The Society is currently undertaking a desk top study of problems, activity and opportunities in this field. A small reference group of relevant experts and contacts could be useful in this context. It might also be possible to work with a university department involved in development issues.

RoSPA is anxious to make contact with individuals and organisations who may be able to help.

Contact: Anna Rowbotham, RoSPA, Edgbaston Park, 353 Bristol Road, Birmingham B5 7ST, UK, Tel: +44 (0) 121 248 2000 Fax: +44 (0) 121 248 2001, Web:

This article first appeared in RoSPA's journal OSH: Occupational Safety and Health, November 1998, page 52 and is published on Health & Safety World by kind permission of the author Roger Bibbings.

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Roger Bibbings, MBE
Occupational Safety Adviser
The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA)