Safety First: Workers Paying the Price for Poor Occupational Safety

Abebe Tesfaye, a father of two, in Akaki Kality District, has worked for 20 years as a metal repair at a government construction company. Earning an ETB1,250 per month salary, Abebe had lots of hardships on his job every day. Flames and acids have left their mark on his skin, he has been in direct contact with every danger there possibly could be during his work.

In April 2012, he had to go to Gurage Zone, Southern Region with co-workers for a road construction project. What happened this time was beyond the bruises that he gets almost every other week. On one of the days, during a routine smoothening of a metal sheet, one of the disks in the grinder machine that he has been working with exploded and its shrapnel were shot every which way, one of it penetrating his stomach.

Abebe was unconscious and almost dead at that time and he was taken to a nearby hospital and later on transferred to Zewditu hospital for further treatment. It was one of the difficult times of his life, as he remembers. Following the accident he has been forced to return to the hospital time and again.

“We were provided with the safety materials we needed. However, there were no trainings on safety issues,” Abebe says. “You do not know what kind of accident happens; when and why it happens either.”

Only the lucky ones such as Abebe get safety tools and treatments and compensation after accidents in the growing construction and manufacturing industry of the country. Yet precautionary trainings are still almost absent.

In Ethiopia Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) management does not seem to be given the attention it deserves, even now when the country aspires to transform its economy in to one which is driven by the industrial sector. 

Occupational accidents and diseases are becoming more common in manufacturing industries as the number and type of these establishments grow in number. Factories and plants are turning hazardous, injuring workers and disrupting livelihoods. In the first eight months of 2012/13 alone, from a sample of 57 companies nationwide, 211 occupational injuries were reported, out of which 38 were terminal, according to Demis Wondaferaw, OSH Expert at the Confederation of Ethiopian Trade Unions.

In the Oromia region alone, from the years 2009 up to 2013, there have been 10,830 occupational accidents registered, out of which 58 were fatal. These occupational accidents have also caused 15,397 working days to be lost and about one million birr to be spent on sallaries paid without workday, according to data from the Oromia Labor and Social Affairs Agency.

Most of the time, these data on occupational injuries do not include accidents that happened at small businesses such as one that chopped two fingers off the left hand of Yoseph Abraham.

Yoseph, 29, had worked as a carpenter in one of the wood workshops in Akaki Kality District for an ETB 700 monthly salary. He made a living out of his job until the unfortunate incident in May 2012, when an electric saw cut his two fingers, an infection of which brought a nerve problem on him. “I am not even capable of handling a hammer now,” says Yospeh.    

It could be difficult to show a clear picture on the prevalence of occupational accidents at a national level as many accidents are gone unreported.  A study conducted by International Labor Organization (ILO) and  Ethiopian Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs (MoLSA), entitled ‘Country Profile on OSH’, in 2004, found out that only 10Pct of occupational accidents and diseases were reported.

In Addis Abeba, for example, out of the 26 thousand companies, only 47 companies reported on accidents to the respective bureaus. Even those that have been reported so far are much focused on accidents in major sectors and major towns and cities.

One of the main challenges hindering smooth management of OSH in the country is the lack of proper and sufficient information. Even the government body entrusted by proclamation, MoLSA, for gathering and compiling of data regarding occupational accidents and diseases at a national level, does not have well documented information regarding the issue.

“The problem is that as a Federal office we cannot force regional Bureaus to gather the data or report to the Ministry. We can only negotiate with them to do so,” said Zerihun Gezahegn, director for Harmonious Industrial Relations at MoLSA.

The other major challenge in managing OSH issues in the country, as understood by all the stakeholders is the lack of awareness. Awareness does not seem to be an issue of concern for both the employees and their employers.

According to the Labor Proclamation, an employee who experienced a temporary disablement is eligible to a one year payment in compensation. The employer shall pay the injured employee a total of the whole salary for the first three months; 75Pct of the employee’s salary for the next three months and not less than 50Pct for the remaining six months. Likewise, an employee who experienced a permanent disablement has a right to receive compensation equal to five times his/ her annual salary.

If an employee dies, the employer is liable to pay 50Pct of the employee’s salary to a wife or husband; 10Pct to each of the children and parents who were being supported by the deceased. The employer also has legal responsibilities of covering funeral costs upon death.

Poor awareness and negligence on safety issues also plays its own role from the employees’ side. Some employees in manufacturing industries are alleged to have abused their safety gears or even sometimes sell them. Other accidents are also attributed to lack of knowledge in what employees do during different processes of production.

People should be trained for a particular industry. The more they know; the more careful they are,” suggested N.R. Agarwal, project manager at Abyssinia integrated steel plc.

The presence of higher number of unemployed citizens relative to the number of sustainable positions in the job market makes it hard for job candidates to turn down an offer even though the work involved may be dangerous, without even the basic safety measures.

Professional teams in the ministry and regional bureaus undertake annual inspections in respective industries and compile reports on OSH issues. Whenever there is incompliance, inspectors report the incident to the Minister and by court order the industry that does not comply with the law could be fined up to ETB1, 200 or even get closed.

“We do not usually tend to fine the industries, but rather create awareness on OSH,” says Zerihun.

Inspections are conducted based on the General Occupational Safety, Health and Working Environment Protection Directive, a document which was adopted in 2006. The Directive is a well organized 236 pages publication with specific requirements regarding OSH. The Directive involves requirements including responsibilities of employers and employees to the availability of OSH materials; from sector based precautions to a list of dangerous works and industries. It also includes list of possible occupational diseases and amount of compensations to specific occupational injuries. 

One of the subchapters, for instance, stipulates responsibilities of employers regarding OSH. The responsibilities of the employer involve cooperation during inspection and in providing the necessary information on OSH for inspectors. Providing all the necessary safety materials and information on the status of the working environment are also among the responsibilities of employers. The employee also has the right to be trained by the employer on safety issues, according to the Directive. 

“Practicing these laws with the needed confirmity is always the problem,” says Haddis Estifanos, a senior consultant at Ethiopian Management Institute.

“Most of the time the industries are not compelled to report accidents. The regulatory body does not even have appropriate format to report accidents,” observes Negalign Muleta, director of Ethiopian Employers Association.

For Haddis, the whole structure in the regulatory framework is too weak to handle OSH issues at a national level. “OSH is not an issue that you can handle with a single department in the first place,” he says. “Other countries have independent authorities or agencies to address the issue of OSH.”  

Lack of qualified professionals has been indeed a challenge in managing OSH in the country. There have been no institutions which give OSH trainings at a higher education level. Inspectors and other professionals in the OSH management structure are people who only undergo short trainings on OSH. It was only recently, in 2004 that the University of Gondar opened Environmental and Occupational Health and Safety Department. The University had also launched a post graduate program in 2012. Ten professionals have graduated this year; Zerihun is one of these graduates.

“Now, we are involving professionals in the matter,” said Yifokire Tefera, one of the founders and vice president for OSH Professionals Association of Ethiopia. Yifokire is also the first PhD candidate, together with three others, in the Department.

Training professionals on OSH is not the only move of course that is being made by stakeholders in OSH management. In about 10 years after adopting a national labor proclamation, a national policy has been adopted and sent to the Office of the Prime Minister for further developments, according to Zerihun. The responsible parties in OSH are also working together to establish a national information management system to register data on accidents and diseases.

Ethiopia has also ratified ILO’s occupational Safety and Health and Environment Convention in 1991. By ratifying the Convention, Ethiopia is expected to be subjected to about eight standards. Complying with these standards that the country has ratified still remains questionable.

Some industry owners, however late, are reported to have shown concern to the area. Industry owners have started to invest in safety apparatuses and equipments. “Almost a million dollar is invested to import a machine that processes the scrap metals collected which will solve the problem of explosives going into the furnace causing injuries,” said Agarwal of the steel manufacturer. Until the new machine arrives though, the scraps of metals collected will continue to be processed manually with employees in direct contact of any possible danger collected with scraps.

One of the gaps in OSH management, as indicated in the ILO study ‘country profile’, was the absence of professionals associations that work on OSH. The Paper alleges that the absence of such associations is another indication of the lack of awareness on OSH issues in the country.

The issue of professionals associations seems to have improved with the establishment of OSH Professional Association Ethiopia on April 28, 2010 licensed by Charity Societies Agency. The Association is more of a think tank, which advocates OSH through researches and provides technical support on OSH management for industries and the government. Founded by membership signatures of about 63 people, the Association operates in the guest house owned by University of Gondar in Addis Abeba. Currently, the Association is also consulting the government and ILO on the establishment of national surveillance system for reporting and controlling occupational injuries and diseases in different industries at a national level.

ILO estimates that Ethiopia had lost nearly USD234 million annually for the ten years before 2002 because of labor loss. All the loss is irreversible as it involves human lives. Safety first- is a motto that should be given a serious thought so much as industrialization. Integrating the issue of OSH in the curriculum down from KG level through higher learning institutions should be given a thought, Haddis urges.

Establishing an independent government body should ease the burden of OSH management in the country. Failure to report work accidents is nothing but an illegal act. A national information management system is a priority, volunteer experts at OSHPA-E agree. 

Curative measures for accidents should not be the way forward. Burden in the lives of victims do not ease with compensations. Covering medical costs of the injured is not thoughtful enough. What is more thoughtful is improving working equipments and working conditions in general. Preventive measures are the only way out of the everlasting post effects of occupational injuries.

Addisu Deresse

EBR Special Contributor


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