Where is the human right to safe work?

Australia is in the middle of a debate about the possible introduction of a charter or bill of human rights.  The debate has been invigorated by the presentation to the Federal Government of a consultation report on human rights.

Occupational safety is often said to be an issue of human rights but this seems to be a secondary action inferred from labor rights rather than a specific statement.  Below are a selection of the articles in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights that may relate to safe workplaces:

Article 1 – All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

Article 3 – Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.

Article 7 – All are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law. All are entitled to equal protection against any discrimination in violation of this Declaration and against any incitement to such discrimination.

Article 23 –  1. Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment.

Article 24 – Everyone has the right to rest and leisure, including reasonable limitation of working hours and periodic holidays with pay.

The closest one would get to a specific right to “safety at work” would be Article 23 – 1 where there is a right to “favourable conditions of work”.  Favourable is a term that is not seen in OHS legislation or discussions but may tie in with the Australian Government’s concepts of Fair Work.

Article 25 – 1 refers to “the health and well-being” but the following examples place this clearly in the social, non-workplace context.

Article 25 – 1. Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.

One could argue that the right to a “standard of living” may include the qualitative elements of a safe working environment but a standard of living –  usually income, education and, sometimes, access and quality of health care – is not the “quality of life” which includes safety.

The report referred to above again does not have an overt statement that people have a right to a safe workplace but it does say, in its summary, that introducing a Human Rights Act

“…. could generate economic benefits, reducing the economic costs associated with policies that do not protect the lives and safety of Australians.”

This language may get a sympathetic ear from the Government in its context of a review of OHS legislation.

But no-one is making the case for a right for a safe workplace.

The argument that a specific right is not required as the state and national OHS legislation places clear obligations on employers and employees does not hold water as similar obligations are in other legislation and some of those sectors are advocating for human rights.

It should be clear from this article that SafetyAtWorkBlog is not a lawyer or a human rights specialist. But what the Government is looking for is discussion on the potential impacts of a Human Rights Act and it is clear from much of the contemporary discussion on occupational health and safety that the overlap between OHS and social safety is increasing very quickly, in the opinion of SafetyAtWorkBlog, quicker than the legislations and laws can cope.

In the past the trade union movement would take the running on human rights as part of their social charter but, as has been said in other SafetyAtWorkBlog articles, the trade unions still remain focused on the material interests of work, primarily, and are currently lobbying on OHS in Australia, primarily, from an industrial base.

The labour lawyers are debating the intricacies of the proposed OHS laws rather than the big picture, the context of the OHS laws in the broader legal and social fabric.  Perhaps this is considered a dead area of examination and discussion.  Once a law is introduced or a precedent set, lawyers tend to adjust their analytical thinking to fit.  Safety professionals and commentators have the luxury to think more broadly.

The safety professional associations are remarkably quiet on the whole idea, preferring to bow to their legal advisers while at the same wondering how they can find relevance in the evolving social context of OHS.

If readers of SafetyAtWorkBlog can shed any light on the human right for safe work, please submit comments below.

Kevin Jones

4 thoughts on “Where is the human right to safe work?”

  1. Speaker after speaker from the World Safety Forum speaking to attendees at the World Congress on Health and Safety 2008 when they launched the Seoul Declaration were very definate that the right to a safe workplace was a fundamental human right and cited the Universal Declaration on Human Rights in their various presentations.

    The question is not whether it should be a human right but how to effectively ensure that workers human rights are respecte and enforced.

    Philip

  2. These conventions make no mention of OHS as a \”human right\” and I was trying to see if the (labour) right to safe work may be something that should be discussed in relation to the recommendation that Australia introduce a Human Rights Act.

  3. I would have thought the International Labour Organisation (ILO) covered Human Rights in relation to Safe Work and I understanfd Australia has undertaken to adhere to some of the reuqirements of the ILO.

    The Occupational Safety and Health Convention, 1981 (No. 155), the Occupational Safety and Health Recommendation, 1981 (No. 164), and the Protocol of 2002 to Convention No. 155.

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