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Occupational Safety Improves in Latin America, Except Among Young People

Young municipal workers wear uniforms and other protective equipment while cutting the grass in the Praça Paris park in the Gloria neighbourhood in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The lack of training and the breach of safety requirements by their employers make young Latin Americans the most vulnerable to accidents at work. Credit: Fabiana Frayssinet/IPS

Young municipal workers wear uniforms and other protective equipment while cutting the grass in the Praça Paris park in the Gloria neighbourhood in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The lack of training and the breach of safety requirements by their employers make young Latin Americans the most vulnerable to accidents at work. Credit: Fabiana Frayssinet/IPS

RIO DE JANEIRO, Apr 27 2018 (IPS) - Despite progress achieved in occupational safety in Latin America, the rates of work-related accidents and diseases are still worrying, especially among young people, more vulnerable in a context of labour flexibility and unemployment.

In 1971, a young labourer, Mário Carlini, died when he fell from the scaffolding during the construction of a building in Rio de Janeiro.

“He tied some boards and when he was going up, the steel sling opened because he had not put it on right. It was not his job, he was filling in for another worker one Saturday,” his widow Laurinda Meneghini, who was left to raise their six children on her own, told IPS.

Almost half a century later in Latin America “there has been a significant improvement in the protection of the safety and health of workers,” especially during this century, according to Nilton Freitas, regional representative of the International Federation of Building and Wood Workers (IFBWW).

Freitas, one of the authors of the book “The Dictionary on Workers’ Health and Safety,” attributes the improvement to better integration among the ministries concerned, such as Labour, Health and Social Security.

“This brought greater visibility to diseases and accidents and led to an increase in punishment for employers,” he told IPS from Panama City, where the Federation has its regional headquarters.

But the regional situation is still critical in terms of job security, according to Julio Fuentes, president of the Latin American and Caribbean Confederation of Public Sector Workers (CLATE) and deputy secretary general of the Argentine Association of State Workers (ATE).

In his country, according to official data on registered workers, there is one work-related death every eight hours.

“The situation in Latin America in general is really tricky,” he said in an interview with IPS from Buenos Aires. “In the case of Argentina, there are no laws, regulations, or government agencies carrying out prevention efforts. There is no policy for that.”

“What there is, which is only partial and deficient,” according to Fuentes, are laws for reparations and compensation, a situation that is “aggravated” because the agency for workplace risk “is in the hands of private, mainly financial, entities.”

“There is no prevention and the business is to earn as much as possible and pay as little as possible,” he said.

The situation in numbers

According to the International Labor Organisation (ILO), 2.78 million workers die every year around the world due to occupational accidents and diseases. About 2.4 million of these deaths are due to occupational diseases, while just over 380,000 are due to workplace accidents.

Partial figures available indicate that in Latin America there are 11.1 fatal accidents per 100,000 workers in industry, 10.7 in agriculture, and 6.9 in the service sector. Some of the most important sectors for regional economies such as mining, construction, agriculture and fishing are also among the most risky.

It is worse in the case of workers between 15 and 24 years of age, according to the ILO.

April 28 is the World Day for Safety and Health at Work, which is focusing this year on “improving the safety and health of young workers.”

The 541 million workers between 15 and 24 years old (including 37 million children engaged in hazardous work), who represent more than 15 percent of the world’s workforce, suffer up to 40 percent more non-fatal occupational injuries than adults over 25, according to the ILO.

For Carmen Bueno, an expert from the ILO, that is due “in the first place, to their physical, psychological and emotional development which is still incomplete, generally leading to a lower perception of the dangers and risks at work. And in second place, young workers have fewer professional skills and less work experience, and lack adequate training in safety and health.”

In addition, “they have less knowledge of their labour rights and obligations. We cannot forget that there is a high incidence of young workers in precarious and/or informal jobs, which results in their exposure to greater risks,” the Occupational Safety and Health specialist from the ILO office for the Southern Cone of Latin America, based in Santiago, Chile, told IPS.

“Finally, other factors such as gender, disability and immigration status also contribute to this special vulnerability,” said Bueno.

According to Freitas, “young workers suffer the most serious accidents, at least in the construction and chemical industries.”

He attributes it to “exogenous factors” such as low educational level and professional qualification.

But “internal factors in the companies” also contribute to this situation, such as a lack of prior training and information on risks, mainly in informal activities and in small or medium-sized enterprises in service sectors such as commerce and transport.

And occupational diseases could be under-reported among young people because many ailments only become apparent when the workers get older, says the ILO.

That is the case of Saul Barrera, a Colombian mining worker for a company in Yumbo, a municipality in the western department of Valle de Cauca, who at the age of 56 suffers, among other effects, a “bilateral sensorineural hearing loss” caused by exposure from a young age to the deafening noises of the workshops and heavy machinery.

“I worked as a mechanic until 2005. Then I started operating a tractor that was very old and too noisy. That’s when I began with that health problem in my ears, which affected the rest of me,” he told IPS from his hometown.

“The machines damaged my shoulders, which in turn caused other medical conditions (rotator cuff, carpal tunnel and epicondylitis injuries), which since 2017 have been bothering me and causing most of my health problems today,” he added.

Barrera said everyone is exposed to the risks. But he said there are additional reasons among young people, as in the case of a co-worker who lost a finger in December.

“They are sent to fill in for other workers without experience or knowledge. They tell them ‘go in there’, and because they’re scared of the bosses, they go in,” he said, to illustrate.

The situation could get worse as a result of the labour reforms underway.

“The factor that most increases vulnerability and risk is the process that has been steadily taking place in Argentina and in the region, of outsourcing of production in factories,” said Fuentes.

In his opinion, “the greatest number of accidents, the least trained workforce, and the youngest workers are found in outsourced companies.”

In addition, “under neoliberal governments, the state reduces controls and inspections, including of work-related diseases and accidents,” he added.

In Brazil, where a labour reform has been implemented since 2017 making labour rights more flexible, Freitas sees “a rapid weakening of the (work safety) system,” because the government of Michel Temer “is undermining the political and institutional power of the Ministry of Labour, mainly with regard to its authority to carry out specialised audits.”

On the other hand, rising unemployment “represents in itself a threat to health. The lack of opportunities throws many young people into the informal sector and a social lifestyle quite dangerous to health and safety, associated with the growing consumption of antidepressants or alcohol and illegal drugs,” he said.

According to Freitas, other social protection systems are in “growing deterioration” in countries such as the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua and Peru, and “despite the strong resistance of the workers.”

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