Is health and safety on the job already a fundamental right for all?

If you are reading this from a comfortable chair, deep within a large organization’s health and safety department, you would be excused for reading the title and exclaiming, “Of course it is!” However, the numbers indicate otherwise. According to the International Labour Organisation (ILO), in 2016 work-related diseases and injuries caused the deaths of 1,9 million people around the globe. Allow that to settle in for a moment! This is how many people from Birmingham, Leeds, and my hometown, Newcastle, die every year at work because of things that could have been avoided.


Incredibly, the ILO did not include “a secure and healthy workplace” in its fundamental principles and rights at work until June 2022! An omission? No, the ILO has been a staunch advocate for health and safety through its conventions and recommendations for decades. Several years ago, I was developing course materials for the NEBOSH International Diploma for RRC (did you catch that? It’s a fantastic course!). I observed how few nations had ratified the major health and safety conventions. Among the 187 member states, only 76 have ratified (agreed to) the Occupational Safety and Health Convention (C155). Less than half have signed to agree with its principles, such as the one that says they must “ensure, as far as is reasonably possible, that the workplaces, machinery, equipment, and processes they control are safe and do not pose a health risk.” Items that are taken for granted in numerous nations.


I examined the list of member states that had ratified C155 because I am an unashamed nerd. Then I put my knowledge of geography to the test to identify the “criminal parties” who had not signed such an important convention. I did identify a few with, shall we say, questionable health and safety practices. However, I then began to identify those who were perhaps more surprising. And I discovered that the United Kingdom, Austria, Germany, Italy, France, and the United States were on the guilty list. On the ILO website, I also discovered a list of “countries that have not ratified C155.” And my geography test concluded. Upon closer inspection, it became apparent that the list included not only member states with dubious safety reputations but also members with high standards. Some would state that members establish health and safety standards. The complete list of countries that have not ratified this convention is available at Countries that have not ratified this convention (ilo.org).

Why did the ILO include “safe and healthy working conditions” in its principles?

This brought me back to the present and the reasoning behind the ILO’s decision to include “a secure and healthy working environment” in its fundamental principles despite decades of effort. We have seen that asking member states to sign an agreement with legal force has not worked. In a rather clever move, the ILO has voted to remove the decision from the members’ hands. The inclusion of C155 (Occupational Safety and Health Convention) and the even less ratified C187 (Promotional Framework for Occupational Safety and Health Convention) as “fundamental conventions” means that the provision of a safe and healthy workplace is a requirement for ILO membership, regardless of whether the conventions have been ratified. It is no longer an option to reject the conventions; the principles apply regardless.

What impact will this have?

countries with highly developed health and safety laws, such as the United Kingdom, the European Union, and the United States, presumably not much. Safety is already enshrined in national legal conventions. I saw nothing controversial in C155, for instance, when viewed through a UK lens. There was, therefore, little need to ratify the conventions because everything felt rather “familiar.” Other than possibly leading by example. However, for some of the other members on the list (who shall remain nameless), this may be the impetus needed to bring safety to the forefront of their governments’ concerns. In exchange for cooperation with the fundamental principles, the ILO will “assist its Members, in response to their established and expressed needs, to achieve these objectives by maximizing its constitutional, operational, and budgetary resources, including the mobilization of external resources and support.”

What does this mean to employers?

Therefore, this is the meaning at the government level; what does this imply for employers? Well, my simple point of view is that if employers just take the first steps to protect workers in their supply chains, this will make a huge difference. When times are difficult, safety standards can be reduced anywhere in the globe. Currently, the majority of organizations worldwide are feeling the pinch. We can hope for financial support for safety enhancements by emphasizing the significance of safety standards, avoiding the pursuit of the quickest task at the lowest cost, and not squeezing suppliers’ profit margins to the bone. As the safety message weaves its way through the global supply chain network, its impact will be widespread. Invest in a product of high quality, pay a fair price, permit organizations to invest in safety. and encourage them to do so actively. Participate in the race up the safety ladder, figuratively speaking, as work at heights should be avoided whenever possible and safer access equipment is available.