Do workers have a human right to workplace health and safety?

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.

Kevin Jones


13 thoughts on “Do workers have a human right to workplace health and safety?”

  1. It does not help when 20 – 30% sometimes more, of the manual workers on a construction site (In London) cannot talk the hosts native language, be it English.
    Is it not a basic requirement for myself to feel safe whilst at work knowing that the man I possibly work beside or near can comprehend with what I say with simple requests such as “exit, fire” or “call an ambulance.”

    Maybe its just me. Or maybe I’m a racist.

    1. John, I have had clients here in Australia who have not been aware of the impact of English as a Second Language on a worker’s capacity to understand what we would call basic safety procedures. It is a hazard that seems often to be hidden because we don’t look for it or we don’t want to address it, as it could be complex to fix. This is an inadequate excuse on all OHS matters included primary languages and literacy.

      I share your nervousness but see the response as being, principally, the remit of the employer and, hopefully, an enlightened employer.

  2. Safety in every place is not just a human right it is a human requirement.
    But it is not just up to the employer to assure workplace safety it is up to everyone within the workplace.
    Incidents happen but accidents can be avoided.
    EG if someone spills their coffee on the stairs it is up to that person to clean the spill up so as another person does not step in the spilled coffee and fall. But how many times does the person just walk on and leave the spill for someone else to clean up?
    The employer will never know who it was who spilled the coffee.
    It is an incident that could/does lead to an accident.

    My safety at my place of employment is 100% in my hands.
    The safety of those around me is 100% in my hands.
    My safety around the people I work with is 100% in their hands.
    Safety is a human right and it is a shared responsibly.

  3. There’s also the question of ‘what does a safe and healthy workplace ‘look’ like?’

    I think we often lose sight of the fact that most employers are probably trying hard in most aspects to present health and safety as high priority issues and work hard at getting it right. And this is often despite the apathy of workers and/or their unwillingness to report incidents – whether safety/health incidents or incidents of bad management by supervisors and others.

    Does then an unforeseen incident, or a worker making a poor choice, resulting in an injury render the workplace unsafe or unhealthy?

  4. People also have the choice (right?) to not work for employers with low morality and who do little to ensure their workplaces are safe and healthy.

    To then make claims that the employer is putting their workers’ health and safety at risk but to remain employed is the same as willingly placing themselves into a high risk situation.

    My job and income or my life? Without my life the income is meaningless.

    If less people were willing to work for employers who care less about their health and safety, those employers would soon either go to the wall or change their ways.

    And while workers stay and suffer the adverse conditions then those employers don’t need to change.

  5. An Employment court in New Zealand reported in one judgement that ‘. . . employers are not the guarantors of health and safety, nor are they required to cocoon employees from stress and upset. They are required to take the practicable steps open to them in face of the risks faced.’

  6. A good sumnation of the issue Kevin, but the question arises – will it ever happen that this is actually enshrined in the statutes of the land?
    The answer in all probability is Never, as this would also bind governments to do a lot more in their own employment situations with public servants who are covered in their employ, but sometimes with scant regard by the various departments.

    A specific group in question is parliamentary workers who are at beck and call of the law makers, but who dont seem to get appropraite coverage when it comes to issues around their emploment.

    Of course Article 7 and the catchcry would most likely be that “fair wages” and a “decent living” are already provided for with our wages system and that any reasonable increase on that would send business to the wall, but at the same time the process is sending workers and families to the wall.

    Having said that I have to consider that our system although far from perfect is still a damn sight better that that of the USA, where a recent report in wages showed that many many workers in jobs are now on salaries that are less that those being paid 15-20 years ago. That is scary!

    Couple that with “piecemeal” or day labour rates for many jobs in that country and we realise that overall we in Australia are really not badly off at all in terms of what Article 7 is talking about.

    The concerning thing now is that the big companies such as miners, in some cases have done salary cutting to the extent that workers are on wage levels that they had 5-7 years ago, based on the companies saying that by doing this there wont be job losses and then in a years time the job cuts start, because they have worked out they can cut anyway.

    That raises a whole lot of issues under Section B and in a country where employers seek commitment, loyalty and productivity, it is becoming more and more apaprent that commit,ment and loyalty are a one way street coupled with longer hours by way of “reasonable overtime”. Public service defines that as 2 hours per week. A recent legal cased relating to law firms defined “reasonable overtime” as 2 hours per week. MIning companies talk about it but dont define it and expect a lot more than that, over and aboved the agreement’s prescribed hours.

    There is still a fair way to go to get a fair wage and a decent living together for many workers!!

    1. Stephen, readers will have realised that I am not a lawyer but in relation to the question you opened your comments with is that the (human) right to “Safe and healthy working conditions” is already reflected in Australia’s OHS/WHS laws. It is one of the concepts on which the duties for employers/PCBUs and employees/workers have been framed.

      Australia is in a position where we don’t have to rely on the human rights covenants and charters to argue our cases because previous generations have integrated those obligations in to our laws.

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