It is common for workers, particularly trade union members, to insist that workers have a right to a safe and healthy workplace and work. Often this is said to be a Human Right. But does occupational health and safety (OHS) involve Human Rights or is the claim simply trade union hyperbole?
It seems that there is a human right to “safe and healthy working conditions”. The full Article 7 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights which came into effect in 1976 states:
“The States Parties to the present Covenant recognize the right of everyone to the enjoyment of just and favourable conditions of work which ensure, in particular:
(a) Remuneration which provides all workers, as a minimum, with:
(i) Fair wages and equal remuneration for work of equal value without distinction of any kind, in particular women being guaranteed conditions of work not inferior to those enjoyed by men, with equal pay for equal work;
(ii) A decent living for themselves and their families in accordance with the provisions of the present Covenant;
(b) Safe and healthy working conditions;
(c) Equal opportunity for everyone to be promoted in his employment to an appropriate higher level, subject to no considerations other than those of seniority and competence;
(d ) Rest, leisure and reasonable limitation of working hours and periodic holidays with pay, as well as remuneration for public holidays.” (emphasis added)
It is clear also that the right to a safe workplace is also part of a suite of sociocultural obligations by signatories.
But so what?
Human Rights covenants are aimed at all countries but are most significant in less developed nations where regulatory systems and the rule of law is less mature or absent. Westernised and modern countries have usually integrated many of these social and culture obligations into their own OHS regulatory systems. So whether a safe and healthy workplace is a human right is irrelevant. Any breaches of these rights will likely be pursued through the local OHS laws and Courts.
Some would suggest the fact that workplace safety is a human right adds authority to the OHS laws and, in some ways it does, but the argument does not go far enough. What is really being argued is that there is a moral obligation on everyone to ensure that there are safe and healthy working conditions. Sometimes arguing on the grounds of OHS as a human right masks the uncertainty about arguing for safety and health from a more fundamental moral position. The Human Rights argument, at least as it relates to westernised countries, is, or should be, irrelevant but is useful in winning some debating points.
The argument seems to often appear when people are discussing Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). As Wikipedia outlines:
“CSR policy functions as a self-regulatory mechanism whereby a business monitors and ensures its active compliance with the spirit of the law, ethical standards and national or international norms.”
Similar to the morality point above, CSR focuses on the spirit of the law to remind lawyers, workers and business owners that there is compliance and then there is Compliance. OHS can be a great example of shallow and short-term thinking on compliance. If a business works to the OHS laws relevant to its jurisdiction or industry sector, it is compliant. But safety is not usually achieved by compliance. Incidents and injuries, and fatalities, continue to occur even in compliant workplaces.
OHS is usually taken to be based on laws and regulations but safety management refers to the spirit of the law and the morality of the society in which it operates. There is a higher socio-economic compliance expected by workers and their families and communities, which is reflected in many of the statements of trade unionists.
There is no doubt that workplace safety is a human right but that fact needs to be recognised in the context of OHS laws and Corporate Social Responsibility. In Australia and other westernised countries, this human right has been acknowledged, applied and normalised through legislation and is not such a big deal but it is worth reminding people that workplace safety and compliance needs more than a checklist. The morality of each company needs to be identified, assessed, understood and reassessed to achieve a proper state of compliance.