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Chapter 23 - Resources, Institutional, Structural and Legal


Simon Pickvance

National and international structures concerned with workplace health and safety have developed rapidly during the last 25 years in response to growing concerns about workers’ health. Economic, social and political changes provide the context for this development.

Amongst the economic factors have been the relocation of power away from workers into multinational enterprises and supranational legislatures, rapid changes in the relative competitiveness of different states in the world economy, and technological change in the productive process. Amongst the social factors are advance of medical knowledge with consequent raised expectations of health, and the growth of scepticism about the effects of scientific and technological advances on the environment inside and outside the workplace. The political context includes the calls for greater participation in the political process in many countries since the 1960s, the crisis in social welfare in several long-industrialized nations, and a growing sensitivity to the practices of multinationals in developing countries. Organizational structures have reflected these developments.

Workers’ organizations have taken on health and safety specialists to provide guidance to their members and negotiate on their behalf at local and national levels. There has been a rapid growth in the number of organizations of the victims of occupational disease over the last ten years, which can be seen as a response to the special hardships which they face where social welfare provisions are inadequate. Both developments have been mirrored at an international level by the increased importance given to health and safety by international trade union federations, and by international conferences of workers in particular industrial sectors. The structural and legal issues related to workers’ organizations, employers’ associations, and labour relations are discussed in a separate chapter of the Encyclopaedia.

The changes in employers’ and state organizations in recent years can be seen as partly reactive and partly pre-emptive. Law introduced in the last 25 years is in part a response to concerns expressed by workers since the late 1960s, and in part regulation of the rapid development of new technologies of production in the post-war period. Constitutional structures set up in different legislatures are of course consonant with national legislation and culture, but there are common features. These include an increase in the importance attached to prevention services and training for workers, managers and health and safety specialists, the establishment of participatory or consultative organizations at the workplace and at the national level, and the reorganization of the labour inspectorates and other state bodies concerned with enforcement. Differing mechanisms have been set up in different States for the insurance coverage provided for a worker injured or made ill by work, and for the relationship of health and safety enforcement to other state bodies concerned with employment and the environment.

Organizational changes such as these create new training requirements in the professions concerned—inspectors, safety engineers, industrial hygienists, ergonomists, occupational psychologists, doctors and nurses. Training is discussed by professional and other bodies at national and international levels, with the major professions meeting in international congresses and developing common requirements and codes of practice.

Research is an essential part of planned and reactive prevention programmes. Governments are the single largest source of research funds, which are predominantly organized into national research programmes. At the international level, there are, in addition to sections of the International Labour Organization (ILO) and the World Health Organization (WHO), research institutions such as the European Joint Safety Institute and the International Agency for Research into Cancer which carry out international programmes of research in occupational safety and health.

While the ILO, WHO and other UN organizations have had a concern with occupational health written into their statutes since the Second World War or even earlier, many international bodies concerned with occupational health date back less than 25 years. Health and safety is now a significant concern of world trade bodies and regional free trade areas, with the social consequences of trade agreements often being discussed during negotiations. The Organization for Economic and Cultural Development (OECD) evaluates health and safety practices in different countries along with purely economic performance. Prolonged debate over the inclusion of a social clause in the GATT negotiations has re-emphasized this linkage.

Acceptance of the authority of national and international organizations is essential if they are to function effectively. For legislative and enforcement bodies, this legitimacy is conferred by law. For research organizations, their authority derives from their adherence to accepted scientific procedures. However, the shift of the formulation of law and the negotiation of agreements on health and safety at work to international bodies poses problems of authority and legitimacy for other organizations such as employers’ associations and workers’ organizations.

The authority of employers comes from the social value of the services or products which they provide, whereas workers’ organizations owe their position in negotiations to the democratic structures which enable them to reflect the views of their members. Each of these forms of legitimacy is more difficult to establish for international organizations. The increased integration of the world economy is likely to bring about an ever-increasing coordination of policy in all areas of occupational safety and health, with emphasis on commonly accepted standards of prevention, compensation, professional training and enforcement. The problem of the organizations which grow up in response to these needs will be to maintain their authority through responsive and interactive relations with workers and the workplace.


Wolfgang von Richthofen

The ILO Labour Administration Convention, 1978 (No. 150) and its related Recommendation (No. 158) provide the basis for the development and operation of any modern system of labour administration. These two international instruments provide a most useful source of guidance and a standard against which any national labour administration can compare its orientation, role, scope, structures and functions, as well as actual performance.

Labour administration is concerned with the management of public affairs in the field of labour which, in its traditional sense, can be taken to mean all matters relating to the economically active human resource, in whatever sector. This is a broad concept, but supported by Convention No. 150, which defines labour administration as “public administration activities in the field of national labour policy”. Such activities would typically include the following:

·     policy formulation involving the preparation of guidelines for new initiatives

·     drafting of labour laws and regulations as a means of giving positive expression to labour policies

·     planning of programmes, projects and activities in support of policy interventions

·     policy shaping, involving drafting and inviting discussions on new initiatives

·     policy implementation, involving the enforcement of labour laws, and the provision of advisory services as to how to comply with labour laws

·     policy monitoring and evaluation

·     providing information and raising awareness on matters of labour policy and labour laws.

From this comprehensive definition, it is apparent that labour administration may cover more than the responsibilities and activities of a typical ministry of labour (employment, social affairs and so on) in that the “field of labour policy may extend to various ministries, departments, parastatal agencies, or other public ministries outside labour”.

It is therefore necessary to think in terms of a labour administration system consisting of various components related to or interacting in the same way, to form a synergetic unity. The common unifying element is labour policy, and this includes all activities carried out under its purview. This will vary from one national system to another (for historical, political, economic, social or other reasons), but may typically include the following components: industrial relations, labour inspection, work safety, occupational hygiene, workers’ compensation, employment services, employment promotion, vocational training, guidance and counselling, trade testing and certification, personnel planning, employment and occupational information, foreign workers and work permits, social security, vulnerable and under-privileged groups, labour statistics, and indeed other elements.

From this it is apparent that a system of labour administration tends to be complex, that it requires coordination at all levels if it is to serve its purpose, and that it is dynamic in that, according to ILO Convention No. 150, it covers all “public administration bodies” and “any institutional framework” concerned with national labour policy. Finally, it becomes evident from this set of international standards that labour inspection should be an integral part of labour administration, and that in the field of labour protection (which includes but goes considerably beyond occupational safety and health) labour inspection is the operational instrument of any labour administration system to ensure compliance with national labour policy and legislation. To quote a former Director-General of the ILO: “Labour legislation without inspection is an essay in ethics rather than a binding social discipline.”

Two Levels of Labour Inspection

Labour inspection, as part of labour administration, as a rule is organized at two levels: field inspection offices devoted mainly to action, and the central authority devoted to policy development and monitoring, and to programme planning and management. The field services and the central authority must obviously work in close collaboration.

Field services

Labour inspection performs its functions of inspection and advice through the field services that constitute its foundation. These give it the advantage over other services of being in direct touch with the world of labour at the enterprise level—with the employers and workers, the active population of the country.

Conversely, carrying out inspections in enterprises puts the inspectorate in a position to provide the central administration with detailed information collected during visits or in meetings with the social partners and unobtainable otherwise, on the social climate, working conditions and the working environment or the difficulties of enforcing the legislation: the inadequacy of the deterrent action of the courts, problems with the regional authorities, pressure exerted by certain enterprises because of their economic role, and lack of coordination in the work of the various public services. The field services are also well placed to bring to light, as required by the international standards, defects or abuses not covered by the legal provisions.

Under ILO Convention No. 81 on Labour Inspection in Industry and Commerce (1947) (and, by virtue of Article 2, Mining and Transport), inspectors of local offices are required “to submit to the central ... authority periodical reports on the results of their inspection activities”. This provision, which is also contained in Convention No. 129 (Labour Inspection (Agriculture) Convention, 1969) leaves States a wide latitude to determine the form, content and frequency of the reports. The provision is essential, however, to ensuring continuous contact between the inspectors and the central body and to keeping the latter informed of the economic and social situation in the regions and allowing it to define and direct national inspection policy, as well as to compile an annual report on the activities of the inspection services for national distribution and in time with international obligations.

The central authority

The central authority directs the labour inspectorate (or, in the case of many federal countries, state inspectorates) and ensures its place in the administrative machinery of the ministry responsible for labour policy administration and of the state administration. Carrying out the tasks of inspection is not, in fact, dependent solely on the personal initiative of the inspectors, even though this remains of fundamental importance. Labour inspectors do not work in isolation; they are part of an administration and execute a set of national corporate objectives.

The first step in directing is to draw up a budget, have it adopted and administer it. The budget reflects the social choices of the government; its amount determines the scale of the means accorded the services. Consultation with the trade union organizations, which have an interest in the effectiveness of inspection, can be important from this point of view.

To direct is also to define a labour protection policy, to work out the principles for the work of inspection, to set an order or priority in accordance with the characteristics of the various branches of activity and the type of the enterprises and the results they obtain, to rationalize the activities (enforcement policy), to perfect the methods and programme, to encourage and coordinate the different services, to evaluate results and to make suggestions to improve the functioning of inspection.

It is the central authority that must give the external services sufficiently clear instructions to ensure the coherent and consistent interpretation of the legal provisions throughout the country. This is usually done by way of a comprehensive national enforcement policy, often (and preferably) designed in consultation with the most representative social partner organizations. Finally, it must manage the staff, see to training and refresher training (training policy), ensure independence and respect for professional ethics and periodically assess the work of the officials.

Under the terms of ILO Conventions Nos. 81 and 129, the central authority has to draw up an annual report, the essential elements of which are indicated in Articles 20 and 21, on the work of the inspection services. The publication of these reports within 12 months after the end of the year to which they relate allows the workers, the employers and the authorities concerned to become familiar with the work of inspection. The communication of these reports to the International Labour Office within three months of publication provides the material for an extremely useful study of the systems established and the results obtained in the member States and allows the competent services of the ILO to remind governments of their obligations, if need be. Unfortunately, this obligation, binding on all member States having ratified the Convention, in practice is all too often overlooked.

It remains for the central body to transmit the information received from the inspection services to the advisory bodies set up within the ministry (e.g., the national safety and health committee or the collective agreements board), to the ministries concerned and to the social partners. It also has to use this information itself and take the appropriate action, either in the work of inspection or in the drafting of laws and regulations. In all, this publication activity is a most useful means for the labour inspectorate to document its activities and achievements at the national and international levels.

Technical Collaboration

ILO Conventions Nos. 81 and 129 provide that appropriate arrangements shall be made to promote cooperation between the labour inspection services and other government services or public or private institutions engaged in similar activities.

Collaboration with other labour administration services

Collaboration must first be established with the other labour administration services, both central and local. The problems dealt with by labour administration—working conditions, health and safety, wages, employment, labour relations, social security and statistics—are often closely linked and must be seen as a whole.

The central authority must exchange information and assist in preparing a common policy and common guidelines for decisions by the competent minister or ministers or by a central planning body. On the local scale, labour inspection must maintain regular contact, in particular, with the employment services, those dealing with foreign workers and those dealing with labour relations (when these come under specialized services).

In countries where there are different labour inspection services under the same ministry (as in Belgium) or attached to different ministries, very close collaboration must be arranged for the exchange of information, the specification of methods or procedures for action and the drawing up of common programmes of action. The effectiveness of work carried out by several services is directly linked to the quality of the cooperation between them, but experience shows that in practice such cooperation is very difficult to organize and time- and resource-consuming even in the best of circumstances. It therefore almost always tends to be a second-best choice. It also tends to render the necessary holistic approach to prevention as the primary objective of labour inspection very difficult.

Collaboration with the social security administration

In many countries, parts of the social security services, notably those responsible for workers’ compensation and occupational accident and disease insurance, deal with the prevention of occupational risks. Other specialized officials carry out checks in enterprises to see what health and safety measures must be applied. In some countries (Australia (New South Wales), Zimbabwe), the labour inspectorate is actually operated by the social security system. In others (France, Germany), they run a separate, parallel inspection system. In still others (Switzerland), the state labour inspectorate is reimbursed on a pro-rata basis for inspection activities devoted to occupational safety and health prevention at enterprises. Though social security officials’ actions are not directly backed, like those of labour inspection, by the authority of the State, except where they are civil servants, such as in New South Wales or Zimbabwe, they are accompanied by financial penalties in the form of increased contributions for enterprises with a high accident rate that do not act on the advice given. On the other hand, enterprises that make a real effort in prevention can benefit from reduced contributions or have loans on special terms to continue their work. These inducements and deterrents (bonus-malus system) obviously constitute an effective way of bringing pressure to bear.

Collaboration between services of social security and labour inspection is essential, but not always easy to establish, even though both usually but not necessarily come under the same ministerial department. This is largely due to the attitude of more or less independent administrations firmly attached to their prerogatives. When the controlling authority is fully effective, however and coordination is achieved, the results, particularly in terms of preventive action and cost control, can be remarkable.

Collaboration with the central authority must be evident in the exchange of information, the utilization of data and the joint preparation of programmes of prevention. Locally, collaboration can take various forms: joint inquiries (in the event of accidents, for example), exchange of information and the possibility of using the equipment of the social security services (often much better endowed from a financial point of view) for labour inspection.

Collaboration with research bodies, technical bodies and experts

Labour inspection cannot remain isolated; it must make close contact with research bodies or universities to keep up with technological change and with progress in the social and human sciences, to obtain specialized information and to follow new trends. Collaboration must not be one-sided. Labour inspection has an important role to play with regard to research bodies; it can point out to them certain subjects for study and help them to test results in the field. Labour inspectorates are sometimes invited to participate in seminars or colloquia on social questions, or to provide specialized teaching. In many countries (e.g., the Federal Republic of Germany, the Russian Federation, or the United Kingdom) such collaboration, sometimes on a regular basis, is found to be of great value.

In the field of occupational health and safety, labour inspection must either approve or collaborate with the bodies approved for carrying out the technical verification of certain types of plant and equipment, where they exist (appliances under pressure, lifting gear, electrical installations). In other countries, such as South Africa, this is still largely done by the labour inspectorate itself. By calling on such external bodies regularly, it can obtain technical opinions and observe the effects of the measures recommended.

The problems faced by labour inspection today, especially in the technical and legal fields, are so complex that inspectorates could not fully ensure the inspection of enterprises without specialist assistance. Convention No. 81 requires States to take the necessary measures “to ensure that ... technical experts and specialists, including specialists in medicine, engineering, electricity and chemistry, are associated in the work of inspection ... for the purpose of securing the enforcement of the legal provisions relating to the protection ... health and safety ... and of investigating the effects of processes, materials and methods of work”. Convention No. 129 has a similar provision.

It remains true that the many aspects of working conditions are closely linked—recent research only goes to confirm this—and that labour inspection services must be able to deal with them as a whole. For this reason, the multidisciplinary approach, which makes it possible to combine the advantages of specialization and versatility where financial resources are adequate, appears especially promising.

Regional or departmental authorities

In almost all countries, the national territory is divided into a number of districts called by different names (regions, provinces, cantons, departments), themselves sometimes subdivided into smaller districts, in which the central authority is represented by senior officials (e.g., governors or prefects). The staff of the external services of the various ministries often come under these senior officials as regards the civil service rules and information on policy, and it is often their senior officials who install labour inspectors in their posts when they are appointed. Inspectors (or, if they exist, departmental, provincial or regional directors of labour) subsequently should keep these senior officials informed of any events that they should know about. Similarly, inspectors must collaborate with these officials to provide them, either directly or through their immediate staff, with any information that they require. Inspectors, however, should always come under their minister, generally the minister of labour, through their superior in the hierarchy (the departmental, provincial or regional director), as regards the content of their work, their manner of carrying it out, and their reporting on its results.

This can put labour inspectors in a delicate situation, for the officials representing the central authority are seldom well informed of the functions of labour inspection and they may be tempted, especially in certain disputes, to base their decision on considerations of law and order and social peace. Labour inspectors must stress the importance of the general application of the labour laws, where this is in question, and, if difficulties arise, they must refer the matter to their superiors.

Judicial authorities

Labour inspectors normally have regular administrative relations with the judicial authorities, whose support is essential for preventing infringements. In most countries, inspectors do not institute proceedings themselves—this is the prerogative of the public prosecutor’s office in the ministry of justice. When they note an infringement and they think it their duty to take it up against the employer, they draft a report of irregularity for the public prosecutor’s office. This report is an important document that must clearly establish the infringement, indicating the provision violated and the facts as observed by the inspector. The public prosecutor’s office generally has discretion either to act on the report and prosecute or to shelve the matter.

It can be seen not only how important it is to draft the report of irregularity, but also how desirable it may be for inspectors and officials of the public prosecutor’s office to meet, if only once. The labour inspector who reports an infringement has generally tried, before resorting to this measure, to use persuasion as a means of having the legal provisions respected. Officials of the public prosecutor’s office and judges are not always adequately informed of this, and it is often lack of knowledge of the inspectors’ working methods that leads them to pronounce trifling penalties or to shelve the case. For this reason, discussions between ministries are also essential at the highest level.

There are other circumstances in which labour inspectors may be in touch with the judiciary—for example, if a piece of information is requested of them for the preliminary investigation of a case or if they are called as witnesses during proceedings. It is important for them to receive communication of the complete text of judgements (including the reasons adduced), as soon as the judgements are handed down. This allows them to report the repetition of the offence, if the infringement continues; if the case is dismissed or the penalty given appears inadequate, it allows the inspectorate to request the public prosecutor’s office to appeal. Finally, communication is all the more useful if the judgement sets a precedent.

Other authorities

Labour inspectors may have occasion to maintain regular or sporadic contact with various other public authorities. They may be invited, for example, to cooperate with development planning services. Their role will then be to draw their attention to certain social factors and to the possible consequences of certain economic decisions. With regard to political personalities (mayors, members of parliament, party members), if labour inspectors should receive requests for information from them, for example, it is important that they should maintain the impartiality that must be their rule of conduct and display increased prudence. Procedures for relations with the police must also be established, for instance to control working hours in public road transport (only the police have the right to halt vehicles) or in case of suspected illegal immigrant labour. There must also be procedures, often lacking, to ensure inspectors the right of entry into workplaces, if necessary with the help of the police.

Relations with Employers’ and Workers’ Organizations

The labour inspection services naturally maintain close and regular relations with employers, workers and their organizations. Conventions Nos. 81 and 129, moreover, call on the appropriate authority to make arrangements to promote this collaboration.

Inspectors have contact in the first place with employers and workers in the enterprise, either during visits, or at meetings of bodies such as safety and health committees or works councils, or during conciliation meetings to prevent or attempt to settle disputes. Inspectors also have frequent contact with workers and employers outside the enterprise. Very often, they provide advice, information and opinions in their offices. Sometimes they preside over joint committees, for example to negotiate collective agreements or to settle disputes. They can also give courses on labour topics for trade unionists or heads of enterprises.

Labour Inspection and the Workers

As it is the clear and daily responsibility of labour inspectors to ensure the protection of the workers, it is inevitable that inspectors and workers should have extremely close relations. First of all, the individual worker can make a direct approach to the inspectors to ask for advice or to consult them on some question. Relations are most frequently established, however, through trade union organizations, shop stewards or workers’ representatives. As the purpose of trade unions is to defend and represent workers, their role is generally essential.

This set of relations, varying in form with the country and with the problem at issue, is discussed in the chapter Labour Relations and Human Resources Management. It should be recalled that the international standards—Conventions Nos. 81 and 129 and the Protocol of 1995 to Convention No. 81—lay down the principle of collaboration, both with the employers and the workers: the competent authority must “make appropriate arrangements to promote ... collaboration between officials of the labour inspectorate and employers and workers or their organizations”. It should also be noted that relations between the labour inspectorate, the employers and the workers cannot be separated from labour relations as a whole and are necessarily marked by the fact that labour inspection forms part of a socio-economic system that differs from country to country.


Collaboration can be established in various ways, in particular through direct relations or through bodies set up within the enterprise for representation or participation. Other forms of collaboration are practised on a departmental or regional scale in certain countries, in accordance with various procedures.

Direct relations

One of the basic functions of labour inspection as described in Article 3 of ILO Convention No. 81 is to provide information and advice to employers and workers, who can ask the inspectors for their opinions on problems that come within their competence and also ask them to take action. The workers can address a complaint or a request for opinion or action (visiting a workplace, for example) to the inspectorate through the trade unions; although labour inspectors remain free to act or not and to choose the form of their action, workers and their organizations have a certain initiative in the matter of inspection.

Relations between labour inspection and representative or participative bodies within the enterprise

This is probably the most obvious and the most regular form of collaboration. Because of workers’ experience and familiarity with work, they are particularly well placed to detect problems arising in working conditions, especially regarding safety and health, and to suggest remedies. It is normal for them to be consulted and associated in the study and solution of problems and in decisions that concern them. These principles, which call for dialogue and participation within the enterprise, call no less naturally for an exchange of information and collaboration with the labour inspectorate.

One of the most usual bodies for participation within the enterprise is the safety and health committee. This committee, which includes the representatives of the employer and the workers, continues in its own sphere the work of the labour inspectorate. The workers’ representatives are normally the most numerous. Committee coordinators are generally the heads of the enterprises or their representatives, which helps to ensure that the decisions taken by the committee will be followed by action. Technical experts, including occupational physicians and safety officers, assist the committee if possible. For its more important meetings the committee can also call on the labour inspector and the engineer of the social security services. The safety and health committee can and indeed should make the rounds and pay very regular visits to workplaces to detect hazards, draw the attention of the management to safety and health problems or address complaints to it about such matters, suggest improvements, verify the action taken on earlier decisions, carry out inquiries in the event of occupational accidents and take the initiative in introducing the workers to the basic prevention of occupational hazards and in improving their knowledge and making the whole staff of the enterprise, from the top of the hierarchy to the bottom, participate in the fight against occupational accidents and diseases.

In many countries, the members of the safety and health committee have the right to accompany labour inspectors on their visits. Experience shows that, where safety and health committees work well, collaboration with the labour inspectorate is common practice. Other representative bodies, the works councils or committees, which have a wider competence, play the same role of extension. Many problems relating to the application of labour legislation can be solved in this way: appropriate solutions can be found that go further than enforcing the letter of the texts, and it is only in difficult cases that the labour inspector is called in.

In many countries, the legislation provides for the appointment in the enterprise of staff representatives or shop stewards, who deal with conditions of employment and working conditions, among other things, and can maintain a dialogue with the employer. All sorts of problems can be brought up in this way that would not otherwise come to light. These problems can often be solved without the help of the labour inspector, who intervenes only if difficulties arise. In certain countries, staff representatives are entrusted with presenting complaints and observations relating to the application of legislation to the inspectorate. The inspectors often have the right and sometimes the obligation to be accompanied by staff representatives during their visits. Elsewhere, workers’ representatives must be informed of the visits of the inspectors and sometimes also of their observations or findings.

A highly important task of labour inspection is to maintain conditions such that the representative or participative bodies can function normally. One is to ensure the observance of trade union rights, the protection of workers’ representatives and the smooth running of the work of these bodies, in conformity with the legal provisions. Labour inspectors have a very important role to play in ensuring that the representative and participative bodies have a genuine existence and carry on useful activities, and this is one of the main areas in which they can give advice.

Participation in Inspection Duties

In some countries, the legislation explicitly provides for the involvement of workers’ representatives—trade unions, shop stewards or elected representatives—in labour inspection duties in certain circumstances.

Compulsory consultation of trade unions

In Italy, in certain cases specified by law, the labour inspectorate is obliged to seek the opinion of the trade union organizations before adopting a provision. Frequently, too, when the ministry of labour provides explanations for labour inspectors on the interpretation and application of the laws, these explanations are also communicated to the trade union organizations by way of circulars, briefings or meetings. In accordance with ministerial instructions, the labour inspectors’ visits must be preceded and followed by meetings with the trade unions, which are entitled, moreover, to see the reports of the visits. This latter practice is followed in more and more countries, often required by law, and has proved a most effective tool against unethical behaviour or negligence on the part of certain inspectors.

In Norway, the Act of 4 February 1977 respecting Workers’ Protection and the Working Environment lays down in certain of its provisions that the inspection services shall allow workers’ representatives to express their opinion before the Inspectorate makes a decision.

Participation and direct intervention of workers’ representatives

The participation of the social partners in inspection has been strengthened in various countries, especially in the Nordic countries.

In Sweden, the Working Environment Act of 19 December 1977 provides for the establishment of a safety committee which shall plan and supervise safety activities, and for the appointment of one or more workers’ safety delegates with wide powers of inspection and access to information. They are authorized to order work to be suspended when they consider a situation to be dangerous, pending a ruling by the labour inspection service and despite opposition by the employer. No penalty can be imposed on a delegate whose decision to have the work suspended is not confirmed by the labour inspector, and the employer cannot claim any compensation for the suspension from the delegate or trade union organization.

Similar provisions on the appointment and duties of safety delegates appear in the 1977 Act of Norway. This Act also provides for the establishment, in all enterprises employing 50 or more persons, of a working environment committee, which participates in the planning and organization of safety and can make decisions; the coordinator of this joint committee changes annually, being elected alternately by the employers’ and the workers’ representatives, and casts a vote.

In Denmark, the organization of safety inspection, based on cooperation between workers and the employer in the enterprise, has been clarified and strengthened, a greater role being given to the trade union representatives. The basic principle underlying the Act of 23 December 1975 respecting the Working Environment is that the responsibility for ensuring occupational safety must be decentralized and, ultimately, assumed in full by the enterprise—and that most problems can and must be solved there, without external intervention.

Workers’ Role in the Inspection of Working Conditions and the Working Environment: International Trends

In general, it would seem that the participation of the workers in the inspection of working conditions and the working environment will continue to increase, particularly in countries that have introduced “self-inspection regimes” or internal control, such as some of the Nordic countries. Any such regimes depend on strong workers’ organizations and their active involvement in the underlying audit process at the enterprise level, which is the centrepiece of any such “self inspection”. It is in this direction that many trade union organizations are moving. The determination of these organizations, whatever their leaning, to participate in the examination and application of measures to make working conditions and the working environment more human has been documented in many recent international meetings.

In particular, the election of safety representatives to represent the workers in the enterprise in all matters of safety and health protection is essential. These officials should receive appropriate training at the expense of the enterprise. They should have the necessary time to carry out inspections and have the right to stop any work that seems to them dangerous, pending verification by the public authorities (in principle, the labour inspectorate).

Trade union participation in the determination of the criteria governing the use of dangerous substances and products is another essential criterion. The workers’ representatives should have a real influence on the management process regarding the use of dangerous substances, the choice of materials, the working out of production methods and the protection of the environment. In general, trade unions and workers’ representatives should have the right to participate, both on the national scale and at the workplace, in the protection of the health and safety of their members.

The ILO’s Occupational Safety and Health Convention, 1981 and Recommendation (Nos. 155 and 164 respectively) show a similar trend. The Convention states that occupational safety, occupational health and the working environment must be the subject of a “coherent national policy”, formulated, implemented and periodically reviewed “in consultation with the most representative organizations of employers and workers”. The two instruments, which lay down the principles of this policy and indicate the measures that must be taken on the national scale and in the enterprise, call on States to secure the enforcement of laws and regulations concerning occupational safety and health and the working environment by an appropriate system of inspection, to furnish guidance to employers and workers and to impose penalties in the event of infringements.

The provisions that are of the greatest interest to labour inspection and local trade union officials are those dealing with the enterprise. The Convention contains the following passages:

(1) workers ... cooperate in the fulfilment by their employer of the obligations placed upon him;

(2) representatives of workers in the undertaking cooperate with the employer in the field of occupational safety and health;

(3) representatives of workers in an undertaking are given adequate information on measures taken by the employer to secure occupational safety and health and may consult their representative organizations about such information provided they do not disclose commercial secrets;

(4) workers and their representatives in the undertaking are given appropriate training in occupational safety and health;

(5) workers or their representatives and, as the case may be, their representative organizations in an undertaking ... are enabled to enquire into, and are consulted by the employer on, all aspects of occupational safety and health associated with their work; for this purpose technical advisers may, by mutual agreement, be brought in from outside the undertaking;

(6) a worker reports forthwith ... any situation which he has reasonable justification to believe presents an imminent and serious danger to his life or health; until the employer has taken remedial action, if necessary, the employer cannot require workers to return to work. ...

The Recommendation (No. 164) that accompanies the Convention naturally contains much fuller and more detailed provisions concerning the whole matter of working conditions and the working environment. It specifies, among other things, what should be provided for workers’ representatives to enable them to carry out their task: training, information, consultation, time during paid working hours, association in decisions and negotiations, access to all parts of the workplace, possibility of communicating with the workers and freedom to contact labour inspectors and to have recourse to specialists. The representatives should “be given protection from dismissal and other measures prejudicial to them while exercising their functions in the field of occupational safety and health”.

The provisions of the Convention and the Recommendation as a whole, on which governments and the social partners have reached general agreement on the international scale, are a pointer to the general direction not only of trade union action within the enterprise in respect of working conditions and the working environment but also of the work of labour inspection.

It is clear that cooperation between heads of enterprises and workers or their representatives will develop simultaneously with the strengthening of participation by the workers in the supervision of their working conditions. The role of labour inspection will then become essentially an advisory role in a system in which the social partners participate actively. Labour inspection will also have the task of supervising the smooth running of the machinery for cooperation within the enterprise, without ever abandoning its function of inspection in situations where violations call for inspection or in the workplaces—becoming fewer no doubt but remaining numerous for some time (in particular small and medium-sized enterprises) where such cooperation has not yet been firmly established. The external check of labour inspection will remain indispensable, even in countries where the social dialogue is the most advanced and the consciousness of occupational hazards the keenest. It will remain the principal tool in more effectively securing the protection of workers.

The Purposes of Inspection

Many different forms and systems of labour inspection exist throughout the world. Beyond their differences, however, they all have common basic purposes that determine the broad functions of inspection. What are these purposes? ILO Convention No. 81, which has acquired virtually universal status through its ratification by almost 120 member States, defines them in Article 3 as follows:

The functions of the system of labour inspection shall be:

(1) to secure the enforcement of the legal provisions relating to conditions of work and the protection of workers while engaged in their work, such as provisions relating to hours, wages, safety, health and welfare, the employment of children and young persons and other connected matters, in so far as such provisions are enforceable by labour inspectors;

(2) to supply technical information and advice to employers and workers concerning the most effective means of complying with the legal provisions;

(3) to bring to the notice of the competent authority defects or abuses not specifically covered by existing legal provisions.

The wording is both strong and flexible, and marks out a vast field for the activities of labour inspection. The obligation is placed on labour inspection “to secure the enforcement of the legal provisions”. These terms were chosen carefully by the authors of the Convention, who did not wish to speak simply of “supervising” or “promoting” the application of the legal provisions, and they clearly state it is the duty of labour inspection services to obtain effective application.

What are these provisions? According to the Convention, in addition to laws and regulations, they include arbitration awards and collective agreements upon which the force of law is conferred and which are enforceable by labour inspectors. These provisions form the common basis for the work of all the inspectors in a country and the guarantee for enterprises and workers against what is arbitrary, unfair and unjust. The role of labour inspectors is not to promote their own ideas, however noble these may be, but to make sure that the legislation in force is carried out (i.e., to be the faithful and active instrument of the competent authorities of their country—the law-makers—in the field of labour protection).

Reference to the legal provisions might appear to restrict the scope of the inspectors in so far as they are not empowered to enforce every improvement in working conditions that seems desirable to them. In fact, one of the functions of labour inspection is “to bring to the notice of the competent authority defects or abuses not specifically covered by existing legal provisions”. This function is given the same priority as the function of enforcing the legislation, and it makes labour inspection an instrument of social development by according it a right of initiative in labour protection.

The scope of labour inspection varies from country to country, with the extent and nature of the legislation in force, with the powers conferred on the inspectors by the State, and with the field covered by the system. The powers of the inspectors may be general and relate to all legislation dealing with working conditions and the working environment; they may on the other hand be restricted to certain matters—for example, safety and health or wages. The system can cover all sectors of the economy or only some of them; it can cover the whole of the national territory or only part of it. Convention No. 81 covers all these situations, so that the tasks of the national inspection services can be narrowly restricted or extremely wide, depending on the country, and still meet the international definition of the purposes of inspection.

Among international standards, those concerning labour inspection appear to be indispensable to the formulation, application and improvement of labour legislation. Labour inspection is one of the driving forces behind social progress, since it ensures the implementation of established social measures (provided of course that it has the means to do so) and brings to light the improvements that may be made to them.

The Functions of Inspection

It has been seen that the purposes of labour inspection, as defined above, are made up of three main tasks: the enforcement of legislation mainly through supervision, the supply of information and advice to employers and workers, and the supply of information to the competent authority.


Inspection is based essentially on visits to workplaces liable to inspection, and it aims, by observation and discussion, first at establishing the situation and then at promoting (by methods to be discussed below) and actually ensuring the application of the legislation for purposes of prevention.

Inspection must not be directed towards the systematic repression of lapses: its aim is to have legislation applied, not to catch offenders. It is, however, essential for inspectors to be able, if need be, to resort to coercive measures by drawing up a report with a view to the infliction of penalties severe enough to be deterrent. If there are no penalties or if penalties do not produce the desired result within a reasonable period, labour inspectors lose all their credibility, and their work loses all its effectiveness This is especially the case when labour inspection has to refer to civil courts for improvement notices and sanctions.

It is obvious that the aim of inspection is the future protection of workers through the ending of dangerous or irregular situations. In the field of safety and health, inspection operates at three stages. Before the construction of a factory, the fitting out of a plant or the manufacture of a machine, for example, it ensures, from the planning stage, conformity with the relevant legislation. This preliminary check will be followed by the normal inspection carried out during visits to workplaces. Lastly, in the event of accident, supervision will take the form of an inquiry intended mainly to prevent repetition of the accident.

Inspection can take various forms depending on the inspection system adopted by the country and its precise purpose. In the field of occupational safety and health, inspection is based mainly on visits to workshops and other places of work. In that of hours of work, wages and child labour, inspectors must demand the records that the enterprise is obliged to keep, and check their accuracy. In the field of freedom of association, inspectors must verify, in accordance with the legal provisions, that the elections laid down are held correctly, that the trade union can carry out its legal activities and that there is no discrimination against its members.

In their work of inspection, inspectors can call on certain sources of assistance (see preceding section on collaboration), either to get a better understanding of the situation (supervisory bodies, appointed experts, the accident prevention departments of social security funds, bodies within the enterprise such as the safety and health committee), or to extend their own work (staff representatives, the above-mentioned prevention departments, employers’ and workers’ organizations). The action of inspectors is discontinuous, and something permanent must be found in the enterprise to carry it on.

Information and advice for employers and workers

The function of supplying information and advice to employers and workers has a clear aim, in the words of Convention No. 81: to indicate “the most effective means of complying with the legal provisions”. Like the function of inspection, it contributes to ensuring the application of the legislation. Information and advice complement inspection, since, as noted above, the labour inspector’s task is not solely coercive.

Accordingly, the effects of the necessarily brief acts of inspectors may endure at the workplace. The advice and information provided by inspectors are thus directed towards the future. Inspectors cannot restrict themselves to carrying out a sort of retrospective supervision to ensure that everything is in order: they have to give advice about the measures to be taken to ensure labour protection, to explain the legal requirements concerning the payment of wages, to indicate where and how medical examinations can be carried out, to demonstrate the importance of limiting work hours and to discuss existing or potential problems with the employer. Authoritative opinion holds that the inspectors who get the best results are those who devote most of their efforts to educational work at the workplace among management or its agent and the workers’ representation. This is current practice in countries such as the Federal Republic of Germany, the United Kingdom, the Scandinavian countries and many others.

Because of its educational nature, the function of supplying information and advice can exert an influence beyond the case in question and play a part in prevention: its effects can be felt on other, similar, or even different, cases and can entail improvements going further than the legal requirements.

Information and advice during visits to workplaces

It is almost inevitable, as has been noted more than once above, that the function of inspection, which is performed mainly during visits to workplaces, should involve the provision of information and advice. Labour inspectors have to answer any questions that employers, their assistants or the workers’ representatives may ask. It is just as natural for them to give opinions and explanations. In fact, the provision of information and advice is so much bound up with the function of inspection that it is difficult to distinguish one from the other. However, the proper balance between advisory and supervisory intervention is a matter of considerable national and international debate. Typically, it is the centrepoint of any comprehensive and coherent national enforcement policy statement.

Information and advice at labour inspection offices

Labour inspectors should be easily accessible, and the doors to their offices should be wide open to anyone wishing to consult them, lay a problem before them or address complaints to them about given situations. Their attitude should always be guided by the same concern: to promote an intelligent and fuller observance of the legal provisions.

A connection must be made between these activities and the handling of individual disputes. These concern as a rule the application of the laws or regulations and, in some countries, take up much of the time of the inspection staff, including that of the inspectors. The problem raised by activities of this type has been settled by Conventions Nos. 81 and 129, which tolerate them only if they do not interfere with the effective discharge of the primary duties of inspectors or prejudice their authority or impartiality. A number of countries consider that this is a question of adequate staffing and that the organization should be large enough to allow inspectors to carry out their other duties properly as well.

Educational activities

To inform and advise are tasks of an educational nature, in so far as the information and advice given are intended not only to be acted on to the letter in a given situation but also to be understood and absorbed, to be convincing and, in short, to have a wide and lasting effect. The provision of information and advice can also take the form of courses, lectures or talks, as suggested, moreover, in Recommendation No. 81. These activities clearly make it possible to reach a wide audience, to explain both the letter and the spirit of labour legislation and to ensure that it is better understood, better accepted and, therefore, better applied. For example, in Norway there is a national training committee made up of representatives of the labour inspection service and of the employers and workers.

Dissemination of information

Ignorance of the social legislation and failure to recognize its underlying purpose and its usefulness are among the greatest obstacles faced by labour inspection, particularly in developing countries. There is no need to stress the great utility of every measure that helps to promote the dissemination of information on labour legislation. Nothing should be neglected in this field, in which employers’ and workers’ organizations can also play an important role. Mention may be made here of the work of the information services of the United Kingdom Health and Safety Executive, which collect and disseminate a great deal of information (a library, documentation and translation service are available; radio and television programmes are prepared, exhibitions arranged, and so on).

Informing the competent authority

This function is often underestimated or neglected. It is nevertheless explicitly mentioned by ILO Conventions Nos. 81 and 129: labour inspection has an obligation “to bring to the notice of the competent authority defects or abuses not specifically covered by existing legal provisions”. This obligation imposed on labour inspection as a whole, from the most junior inspectors to their highest superiors, completes the terms of reference that make labour inspection an active agent for social progress. The inspectors’ knowledge of labour problems and of the workers’ situation, especially concerning the protection guaranteed to the workers by the social laws and regulations, puts them in a position to keep the authorities informed.

Other functions

In many countries, the labour inspection services are entrusted with other tasks. Conventions Nos. 81 and 129 admit this situation but specify that “any further duties which may be entrusted to labour inspectors shall not be such as to interfere with the effective discharge of their primary duties or to prejudice ... the authority and impartiality which are necessary to inspectors in their relations with employers and workers”.

The economic field

Economic and social questions are often closely linked. Owing to the contacts it maintains with the world of labour and the information it collects in the normal course of its work, the labour inspection service possesses a large amount of information of a social nature (occupational safety and health, the position of women workers and young workers, the state of labour relations, the conclusion and signature of collective agreements) or economic nature (number of enterprises, numerical strength of staff, hours of work carried out, average wages paid in different sectors of activity, requirements in skilled labour in the various economic sectors or geographic regions, and so on).

It is not surprising that the authorities in many countries have considered making use of so valuable a source of information, in particular in drawing up development plans. The labour inspectorate, by its nature objective and serious, can certainly supply such information and thus contribute to the administration and development of the country.

Labour relations: conciliation and arbitration

The international Conventions make no provision for either conciliation or arbitration to be entrusted to the labour inspection services. The Labour Inspection Recommendation, 1947 (No. 81), however, explicitly excludes them, for, by carrying them out, labour inspectors risk their independence and impartiality. Conciliation and arbitration are thus not dealt with here. In many countries, however, these functions, particularly conciliation, are in fact entrusted to the labour inspection services. Since the adoption of Recommendation No. 81 in 1947, this question has always given rise to discussion. The Labour Inspection (Agriculture) Recommendation, 1969 (No. 133), moreover, is less definite than Recommendation No. 81, for it accepts the participation of labour inspectors in the settlement of labour disputes, as a temporary measure, where no special bodies exist for the purpose of conciliation.

Protection of workers’ representatives

The Workers’ Representatives Convention, 1971 (No. 135), which is supplemented by Recommendation No. 143 of the same year, provides that

Workers’ representatives in the undertaking shall enjoy effective protection against any act prejudicial to them, including dismissal, based on their status or activities as a workers’ representative or on union membership or participation in union activities, in so far as they act in conformity with existing laws or collective agreements or other jointly agreed arrangements.

Some countries require employers to obtain union agreement or a court authorization before they can dismiss a workers’ representative. In other countries, including France and the countries in the French administrative tradition, the dismissal of shop stewards or elected staff representatives is subject to authorization by the labour inspection service (unless the works council is in agreement, needless to say an extremely rare occurrence). In making their decisions labour inspectors must try to establish whether faults imputed by employers to the workers’ representatives are or are not linked to their union activities, as defined by law and precedent. If so, they will reject the dismissal; if not, they will allow it (provided, of course, that the charges against the persons concerned are sufficiently serious).

Supervision in the field of employment

In many countries, especially those following the French administrative system, labour inspection services play an important role in the field of employment, particularly in checking terminations of employment. In France, in the event of a request for mass terminations, the labour inspection officials have the task of checking the way in which the consultation procedure has been followed, the validity of the reasons given to justify the terminations and the extent of the measures to be taken for resettlement and compensation. After examining the financial position of the enterprise or the employment market, the labour inspector can in theory refuse the terminations (in fact, this appears to happen in only about 5% of cases).

Still in the field of employment, labour inspectors are often mandated to ensure that the principle of non-discrimination is observed during recruitment or termination (prohibition of any discrimination based on such factors as race, sex, religion, political opinion, nationality and family situation). They supervise the activities of temporary employment agencies to prevent the negative effects that the development of precarious forms of employment, in particular temporary work, may have on wage earners. The economic problems and unemployment prevailing in many countries lead to increased supervision relating to the struggle against clandestine employment and the regulation of foreign labour or overtime, for example.

Miscellaneous functions

Labour inspection can be entrusted with tasks other than those mentioned above, such as keeping a watch on the protection of the environment against pollution from enterprises, or on fire prevention in premises open to the public. These functions, which sometimes only the labour inspection service is in a position to fulfil, do not come directly within its province and they must not interfere with its main functions of protecting workers in the enterprise.

The Different Systems of Inspection

Labour inspection services differ from country to country, but it is possible to distinguish two main systems: those that cover all sectors of activity and those that have specialized departments for each sector (mining, agriculture, manufacturing, transport and so on). The purpose of inspection may also vary with the inspection service: safety and health, working conditions, wages and labour relations. A distinction may similarly be made between systems whose officials enforce the statutory provisions in all the fields covered and those that have sections specialized in accordance with the purpose of inspection. In some countries, certain tasks of inspection are entrusted to local communities, and countries with a mining industry generally have a special system for this sector.

Structure of the systems

Competence as regards the sector of activity

In some countries, there is a single labour inspection system competent for all sectors of economic activity. If mining, which in almost all countries comes under the corresponding ministry (there are exceptions: Mexico, for example), is disregarded, this system is found in European countries such as Luxembourg, Spain or Switzerland. It is also found in many African and Asian countries. The French-speaking countries of Africa, for example, have inspection systems that come under the ministry of labour and cover all branches of activity.

The advantage of this system is that it gives the inspectorate and, above it, the ministry of labour a general view of the different sectors, the problems of protecting wage earners often being similar. Moreover, in countries with limited resources, this system makes it possible to reduce the number of visits needed to supervise different activities. In other countries, a specialized inspection service exists for each sector of activity, coming under the ministry concerned.

At the end of the nineteenth century, most European countries had a body to deal with questions of labour legislation, generally attached to a ministry, such as the ministry of the interior or the ministry of industry and commerce. In the years preceding the First World War, autonomous ministries of labour were established with the task of enforcing the labour legislation through a specialized public administration. This explains why, in certain branches of activity, supervising the observance of the laws protecting workers has remained among the functions of the ministerial department previously competent.

Between these two extremes—a single inspection system under one ministry competent to deal with all sectors of activity and many specialized sectoral services coming under several ministries—there are intermediate systems in which one inspection service deals with a few sectors only, or several inspection services come under one and the same ministry.

For several years a trend has been developing towards grouping the inspection services under the control of a single authority, generally the ministry of labour, both because the problems that arise in most of the sectors are very similar if not identical and because this makes for more efficient and more economical administration. A unified and integrated system increases the opportunities open to the government in the prevention of occupational hazards and the legal protection of the workers.

In 1975, France unified the main inspection services, the whole of the inter-ministerial body thus established being governed by identical conditions of service, coming under the Ministry of Labour. In 1975, the United Kingdom also decided to group its health and safety inspection services (there had been seven separate services under five different ministries) under the Health and Safety Executive. With the creation of this Executive, the Factory Inspectorate, the other inspection services (and successively even those for the exploitation of offshore oil and gas and public transport), the Employment Medical Advisory Service and other official bodies carrying out work in prevention all became part of a single institution responsible to a single ministry, the Department of Employment. (However, this Department was dissolved in 1995, and labour inspection now comes under the Department of Environment, a trend that can also be observed in other countries—e.g., Germany.) The concern to coordinate efforts in prevention and in the improvement of working conditions in the face of increasingly complicated legislation has also led other countries to entrust the supervision of the effect given to the laws on labour protection to a single inspection body, generally coming under the ministry of labour.

Competence as regards the purpose of inspection

The labour inspection services are responsible for ensuring that the legal provisions are observed in many fields: health and safety, working conditions, wages and labour relations.

In certain countries—for example, Belgium, Italy and the United Kingdom—the inspection system includes services specialized in accordance with the purpose of inspection. In Belgium, there are the following services: a technical inspectorate for prevention and safety in the enterprise; a medical inspectorate, dealing with health and hygiene; an inspectorate concerned with social legislation, dealing with conditions of employment (wages, hours of work and so on); an inspectorate to supervise the payment of social contributions; and officials dealing with questions of labour relations. In systems of this type, although the different services are specialized in particular fields, they are generally competent for all economic sectors.

The specialization of labour inspectors is an attempt to respond to the increasing complexity of the tasks of inspection. Advocates of specialization hold that an inspector cannot possess enough knowledge to deal with all the problems of workers’ protection. Specialization is such in certain countries that working conditions, in the broad sense of the term, can come under four or five types of inspection in the same enterprise.

Other countries, however, have a single system under which officials are competent for all questions relating to labour inspection. This is the situation in Austria, Germany and the French-speaking countries of Africa, for example; the latter, for obvious reasons, did not embark on the costly organization of several specialized bodies and thus have a single inspectorate under the ministry of labour. In such cases, the inspectorate is responsible for all the tasks that have to be carried out in the enterprise, the inspector or supervisor being the only representative of the ministry to deal with it.

This system has the advantage of giving inspectors a comprehensive view of labour problems, which are often interdependent, and avoids a proliferation of inspections and a lack of coordination; but it may be wondered how far inspectors can carry out so extensive a programme in view of the increasing complexity of the legal and technical problems.

There is an intermediate solution, consisting in a system under which labour inspectors are competent in many fields but have sufficient technical knowledge to recognize danger situations and call in specialists in medicine, engineering and chemistry, as provided by Convention No. 81. This is the situation in France. Another example is provided by the United Kingdom, where the general inspectors in the field of safety and health call upon inspectors who are specialists in the very technical branches (electricity, chemistry, atomic energy) when particular problems arise. Labour inspection then has a tendency to become multidisciplinary; in Denmark and other Nordic countries, as well as the Netherlands, it has actually become multidisciplinary, with district inspection teams made up of inspectors (who have received technical training), engineers, physicians, psychologists, lawyers and ergonomists. The introduction of multidisciplinary teams allows the coordinators to have a general view of the various aspects of working conditions and to base their decisions on a synthesis of the opinions expressed. The cost of such an organization is high, but it is very effective, provided that the work of the various specialists is satisfactorily coordinated.

The bringing together of established inspection services in a number of countries, or at least the closer coordination of their activities, may be explained by the close relations between the different aspects of working conditions. Such measures meet the wishes both of the officials responsible for supervision and of the workers and unions. Workers grappling with difficulties do not see why they should have to get in touch with several officials, each competent to deal with a different aspect of the problem, and to explain their situation repeatedly, perhaps with a great waste of their working time. The concern of the unions is to improve the effectiveness of labour inspection and to facilitate contacts between it and their members.

Functions of Local Communities

A few States still call upon local communities either to help the labour inspection services carry out their tasks or even to perform inspection functions in the place of the state services.

For instance, in Sweden, the Working Environment Act of 19 December 1977 entrusted the enforcement of its provisions and of the regulations issued under it to the Workers’ Protection Board and to the labour inspection service, under the supervision and direction of this Board. The Act calls on each commune, in consultation with the labour inspection service, to appoint one or more supervision officers to assist the inspection service in carrying out its task, generally by supervising enterprises employing fewer than ten persons and not using machinery. All communes have to submit an annual report to the inspection service on the way in which this supervision has been exercised.

Notably in Italy, the law of 23 December 1978 to reform the health system decentralized responsibility for public health, including occupational hygiene and safety, to the regional and local health authorities. The local health units, designated by the communal authorities, deal with everything concerning public health: hospital administration, organization of local health services, health and safety in enterprises and so on. This reform thus withdraws from the labour inspection service, a state service coming under the Ministry of Labour, the function for which it was originally established.

The transfer of the functions formerly carried out by the labour inspection service in safety and health to local health units has resulted in the creation of two labour inspection services: one coming under the Ministry of Labour, which continues to supervise the application of the social laws and regulations (wages, hours of work, paid leave and so on) and to carry out a few tasks related to safety and health (verification of ionizing radiations, supervision of the railways in collaboration with railway officials and so on) and another competent to deal with most safety and health questions, which is an integral part of the National Health Service and is based on municipal bodies, namely local health units.

In Uganda, a major decentralization drive has also brought the labour inspectorate, though not the factory inspectorate, under the direct responsibility of the local (district) authorities. These few examples are, however, exceptions and do not constitute the rule. They also raise serious doubt as to compatibility with important standards in the relevant ILO Conventions (notably Convention No. 81, Article 4), which stipulate that labour inspection should be placed under a central authority.

Labour Inspection in Mines

Almost all countries with a mining industry have an inspection system for this sector based on the system that has been operating for several generations in the old mining countries of Europe—Belgium, France, the Federal Republic of Germany and the United Kingdom.

The existing systems have two major characteristics in common. While the supervision of working conditions on the surface remains the province of the labour inspectorate, the inspection of safety and health underground, except in a few countries (for example, Mexico), is the responsibility of the mining engineers, who form a specialized body. Furthermore, all these systems associate miners’ delegates, more or less closely and with varying powers, in labour inspection at the worksite.

Powers and Duties of Labour Inspectors


Right of free entry and investigation

The first power of the inspector—without which there would obviously be little inspection—is that of visiting enterprises. The provisions of Convention No. 81 (repeated in Convention No. 129, which applies to agriculture) regarding this power are as follows:

Labour inspectors provided with proper credentials shall be empowered:

(1) to enter freely and without previous notice at any hour of the day or night any workplace liable to inspection;

(2) to enter by day any premises which they may have reasonable cause to believe to be liable to inspection.

During the drafting of the international standards, there was a great deal of opposition to the institution of the right to enter workplaces. Obstacles have not been lacking either to the incorporation of this right in national laws. In particular, it was argued that it was an unacceptable breach of the right of ownership. The possibility of entering establishments at any time was the subject of special resistance, but it is quite obvious that inspectors can establish the illegal employment of workers, where it exists, only by carrying out verifications at unusual hours. In practice, the right of entry is normal in all countries with inspection services.

This issue (and others related to powers of inspection) was again the subject of intense debate at the 1995 Session of the International Labour Conference, which dealt with the issue of labour inspection in the non-commercial services sector. The Conference adopted a “Protocol to extend Convention No. 81” to that sector, and essentially reaffirmed the fundamental powers of inspectors, while allowing for certain exceptions and restrictions, for instance for national security reasons or in the light of specific operational exigencies, for workplaces under the authority of the armed services, police services, prison services, fire and other rescue services, and so on (see Articles 2 to 4 of the 1995 Protocol in ILO 1996).

Under Conventions Nos. 81 and 129, inspectors must be authorized “to carry out any examination, test or enquiry which they may consider necessary in order to satisfy themselves that the legal provisions are being strictly observed”, which implies, in the words of the two instruments, the right to interrogate, alone or in the presence of witnesses, the employer or the staff, the right to require the production of any books, registers or other documents the keeping of which is prescribed by national laws or regulations, and the right to take samples for purposes of analysis. These rights are generally recognized, although in certain countries restrictions may be imposed on the consultation of financial documents.

It thus seems that, with rare exceptions, the supervising powers of inspectors are accepted and no longer meet with flat opposition. The possibility of calling in the police, which is provided for in most laws, is no doubt a sufficient deterrent, provided effective procedure to this end has been established between the different ministries concerned.

These powers, of course, are subject to the same limitations as any others. If exercised indiscriminately, they could ultimately produce a result opposite to that desired. These rights are accorded to inspectors so that they may exercise them intelligently and, as experience has shown, their ability to do so depends largely on the quality of their training.

Powers of injunction

Convention No. 81 states that “Labour inspectors shall be empowered to take steps with a view to remedying defects observed in plant, layout or working methods which they may have reasonable cause to believe constitute a threat to the health or safety of the workers”. This provision is repeated in almost the same words in Convention No. 129, which also covers the use of dangerous substances, because, no doubt, of the increasingly widespread use of chemicals in agriculture.

If labour inspection were devoid of the means to rectify irregular situations found in enterprises, its effectiveness would obviously be limited. It is largely by the real extent of these powers, the manner in which they are carried out and the consequences of the warnings and orders that the effectiveness of the inspection services can be gauged.

Though the two Conventions as well as the Protocol stress the importance in principle of the powers of injunction, they both leave governments a certain latitude. After providing that inspectors “shall be empowered to make or to have made orders” requiring the necessary measures to be taken, alterations to be carried out within a specified time limit, or measures with immediate executory force—they go on to provide that where this procedure is not compatible with the administrative or judicial practice of the State, inspectors can “apply to the competent authority for the issue of orders or for the initiation of measures with immediate executory force”. Account had to be taken of the impossibility, under the constitutions of certain States, of entrusting such powers to an administrative authority. The powers of the inspectors thus tend to vary from country to country even in those States that have ratified ILO Convention No. 81.

With a view to “remedying defects observed”, the inspector can either draft an order allowing the employer a specified period in which to rectify matters or require immediate measures to be taken in the event of imminent danger. The latter power is available to inspectors in more and more countries: mention may be made of Belgium, the Federal Republic of Germany, Japan, the United Kingdom, the Scandinavian countries, South Africa and many others that have reformed their occupational safety and health legislation in the 1980s and early 1990s. In other countries, such measures may still have to be ordered by the courts; but the time it takes for the court to give its decision and for that decision to be executed causes a delay during which an accident may happen. Furthermore, judges in civil courts are often not specially trained in labour protection matters, and are often found to be insensitive to violations; fines tend to be low; and these and many other factors which tend to undermine the authority of the inspectorates have reinforced the trend away from court proceedings for even minor violations including criminal proceedings to administrative proceedings over which the inspectorates have more effective control. To reduce this delay, certain countries have instituted an emergency procedure that allows the inspector to apply to the presiding judge at any time, even at home, for an order with immediate executory force.

Right of appeal

It is obvious that the mandatory decisions taken by the inspector are generally subject to a right of appeal by the employer, for provision should be made for the prevention or rectification of all possible abuses. Appeals, as a rule, are suspensory in respect of orders with a time limit, but non-suspensory in respect of orders with immediate executory force, in view of the imminent danger they are aimed at.

Action taken on infringements

“Persons who violate or neglect to observe legal provisions enforceable by labour inspectors shall be liable to prompt legal proceedings without previous warning.” This strict principle laid down in Convention No. 81 and repeated in Convention No. 129 is, nevertheless, tempered in two ways. Firstly, “exceptions may be made by national laws or regulations in respect of cases in which previous notice to carry out remedial or preventive measures is to be given”. Secondly, “it shall be left to the discretion of labour inspectors to give warning and advice instead of instituting or recommending proceedings”.

The second of these provisions gives inspectors complete freedom of choice. In each case, they must determine what means—advice, warning or legal proceedings—will best ensure that the law is observed. The choice must fit in with a plan that they have specially adapted to the nature of the enterprise and with a sequence of aims arranged in order of importance.

If inspectors decide on legal proceedings, they can either place the matter before the courts themselves (as in countries in the British administrative tradition) or recommend legal proceedings to the public prosecutor or the judiciary (this is the most common situation). Labour inspectors then draw up reports, which are treated as authentic, depending on the country, either until they are disproved or until their authenticity is challenged before the courts.

Conventions Nos. 81 and 129 state that “adequate penalties for violations of the legal provisions ... shall be provided for by national laws or regulations and effectively enforced”. While all national laws provide penalties for violations, all too often these are not “adequate”. Fines, the amount of which is often fixed when the corresponding legal provisions are adopted and remains unchanged for years, are so light as to have hardly any deterrent value. If the court pronounces imprisonment, it is generally through a suspended sentence, though the sentence may be enforced in the event of a repetition of the offence. The courts always have full discretion. Here it must be clearly recognized that the will of a government to enforce the laws and regulations protecting workers can be judged by the weight of the penalties prescribed and the way in which they are applied by the courts.

Opposition to the performance of the tasks of labour inspection or contestation of the authority of the State is generally severely punished by national laws and regulations, which in addition must provide for the possibility of calling in the police force. In fact, it is rare for heads of enterprise to practise obstructive tactics.



In the words of Conventions Nos. 81 and 129, labour inspectors “shall be prohibited from having any direct or indirect interest in the undertakings under their supervision”. In most countries, this prohibition is set out in the conditions of service for civil servants and in special provisions.

Professional secrecy

Inspectors “shall be bound on pain of appropriate penalties or disciplinary measures not to reveal, even after leaving the service, any manufacturing or commercial secrets or working processes which may come to their knowledge in the course of their duties”. Inspectors are generally bound to secrecy because of their status as civil servants, in accordance with the legal provisions applicable to the civil service. This obligation is often included in the written undertaking that they have to sign or the oath that they have to swear on taking up their duties. They promise to observe secrecy, not only for the period of their employment, but for life.

Discretion regarding the source of complaints

Inspectors “shall treat as absolutely confidential the source of any complaint, and shall give no intimation to the employer or his representative that a visit of inspection was made in consequence of the receipt of such a complaint”. This obligation arises from the dual concern to protect workers who have made complaints and to render the inspector’s work more effective. It is binding. Like the preceding obligations, it is generally the object of a legal provision or a clause in the conditions of service of inspectors and normally appears in the undertakings that they give during their swearing in.

Independence of inspectors

This entails both an obligation placed on the inspectors and a guarantee accorded them. Conventions Nos. 81 and 129 provide that “the inspection staff shall be composed of public officials whose status and conditions of service are such that they are assured of stability of employment and are independent of changes of government and of improper external influences”, such as those that certain unscrupulous heads of enterprise or certain political elements might try to exert.

Preventive Labour Inspection

At the end of the twentieth century, many institutions in the field of labour and social policy which often originated, such as labour inspection, in the nineteenth, very much concerned with and interested in the function of prevention, are undergoing profound, rapid and dramatic changes. These changes are due to a combination of internal and external factors—political, social, economic, administrative and technological. They will have a profound impact on the respective role, scope and functions of these institutions, their relationships with each other and with their principal clients as they head into the twenty-first century. It is necessary to understand and analyse the nature of these changes, the way they affect the capacity, performance, impact and relationships of the principal actors, and the social reality in which they operate.

Prevention in the context of labour protection, and the role of labour inspection in this regard, is referred to in numerous international labour standards (e.g., ILO Conventions Nos. 81, 129, 155, 174 and others). However, the instruments on labour inspection (Conventions Nos. 81 and 129, and Recommendations Nos. 81, 82 and 133), while generally conducive to and promoting principles of prevention, specifically address the issue only at the pre-workplace stage (cf. paragraphs 1 to 3 of Recommendation No. 81 and paragraph 11 of Recommendation No. 133).

Since the adoption of these labour inspection standards (of which in particular Convention No. 81 on labour inspection in commerce and industry has acquired universal character through its ratification by almost 120 ILO member States), the concept of prevention has changed substantially. To speak of prevention implies first of all a determined effort to avoid incidents, accidents, disputes, conflicts and so on. However, what has occurred and has been the subject of intervention and sanctions is much more readily documented, measured and valorized than what has been avoided. How does one measure the number and effect of accidents that did not take place? And how does one show evidence of effectiveness and efficiency as a result, and as proof of achievement?

Today, preventive orientation as a social and labour policy paradigm aims at the broad goal of enabling individuals to lead a long, productive and healthy life, and thereby also to reduce the exponentially growing costs for the different elements of social security to individuals, to enterprises and to society. Furthermore, prevention in the world of work is identified more and more not only by short-term advantages but as supporting and sustaining working capacity, productivity and quality, security of employment and so on, and is therefore increasingly seen as a decisive prerequisite for an individual to lead a dignified life in society. Prevention is thus defined as a holistic “open” or pluralistic concept aimed at avoiding a multiplicity of social, technical, medical, psychological, economic and other hazards, and whose effectiveness depends increasingly on the recognition, analysis and consideration of early indicators.

The very considerable ILO experience in cooperation with its worldwide constituents over the last decade shows that the shift from a relatively rigid concept of reactive control to one of anticipatory prevention invariably leads to substantive progress in labour administration activities and in results obtained. But this body of experience has also shown the difficulties in achieving this indispensable evolution and in maintaining its orientation against a host of diverse impeding factors.

Furthermore, for any policy of prevention to be effective requires the participation of all the parties and individuals directly concerned. It must therefore often pass through the involvement of organized social partner representatives and their commitment to any such initiatives. The pursued prevention objectives must, additionally, be fully integrated into the system of objectives of the enterprises concerned. This in turn includes the active participation, indeed leadership, of management. Such conditions are far from being fulfilled worldwide or indeed even in the most industrially advanced market economies.

Added to that, the budgetary constraints now weighing on governments everywhere (in developing and developed countries alike), and therefore on the means available to labour administrations and their field services and labour inspection (indeed often disproportionately so), risk jeopardizing or weakening any such policy (re)orientations, as they are, at least initially, costly in time and resources and, as already mentioned, difficult to measure and therefore to justify.

However, in industrialized countries the economic and social costs of non-prevention are everywhere growing out of hand, to financially unaffordable and politically unacceptable levels. To this must be added the growing recognition of the general insufficiency of corrective ex post factum intervention. This has led to the conclusion that the preventative elements of any system of social and labour protection absolutely have to be reinforced. In consequence, a broad discussion at the national and international levels has begun with a view to developing valid, practical concepts for preventive labour inspection.

The increasingly rapid pace of change and innovation in all aspects of the world of work—social relations, work organization, production technology, conditions of employment, informatics, new hazards and so on—creates a mounting challenge for labour inspectorates. Inspectors must not only keep abreast of developments in more and more complex, divergent and increasingly specialized fields necessary for their competence, they must, in fact, anticipate trends and developments and be able to rapidly identify and understand their consequences in terms of labour protection, and thus to develop and implement new strategies for prevention.

In the world of work, labour inspection is one of the most (if not the most) important instruments of state presence and intervention to design, stimulate and contribute to the development of a culture of prevention in all aspects under its purview: industrial relations, general conditions of work, occupational safety and health, social security. For inspectorates to successfully accomplish this primary task they must reorient their policies, influence reform of legislation, of methods, relations and so on towards developing a preventative capacity, internally and externally. This concerns both the policies and methods which the inspection authority must pursue, as well as the methods of inspection at workplaces to be adopted by inspectors.

Major determining factors in this context are the challenges and pressures on labour inspection from the economic, political and administrative context. These are generally described by concepts such as deregulation, privatization, structural adjustment and market testing. These policies tend in practice to make the work of labour inspection more difficult and complex, although they may also provide a driving force for innovation. They regularly, however, tend to exacerbate the usually already chronic resource deficiencies. Labour protection, therefore, must also look for alternative resources for the development of its own contribution to prevention.

Ultimately, the aim is to develop a comprehensive, sustained “prevention culture” in workplaces (and society), taking into account the dynamics of change in social relations within the enterprise, the challenges to traditional notions of authority and legitimacy which arise from changes in attitudes, in work organization and so on, the generally higher (and still rising) levels of training and education among both employers and workers, new forms of participation which create an enabling environment and so on. All these require new forms of cooperation by the labour inspectorate with employers and workers and other institutions, not only as regards enforcement of labour protection standards and regulations, but in view of achieving comprehensive compliance with the preventive objectives of new protective social and labour policy and legislation.


Felice Morgenstern*

*This article is adapted from Deterrence and Compensation by Felice Morgenstern (ILO 1982).

Duties in Respect of Safety and Health

Liability and responsibility in law have two aspects: one is the duty to do, or not to do, something; the other is the obligation to answer for what has been done, or not done. Any examination of the manner in which different categories of person may be made answerable at the national level for causes of occupational accidents or diseases should be preceded by a summary of the duties laid upon them with a view to the prevention of such accidents and diseases. These duties are often expressly laid down in international standards, or national laws or regulations but may also be defined by case-law. Questions have been raised as to the appropriateness of determining, in (civil) legal proceedings subsequent to injury, what the conduct of those concerned should have been beforehand. But it is also clear that some of the decisions in question, and the publicity surrounding them, have acted as a spur in the field of prevention.

Public bodies

Public bodies (whether government departments, special safety and health executives or other, autonomous bodies) play a large part in setting the framework within which liability and responsibility arise, by formulating rules, both general and particular, regarding the duties of various categories of persons, as well as by participating in their enforcement.

General rules regarding occupational safety and health, and rules regarding safety and health in particular industries or in respect of particular hazards, may be laid down by such means as laws or regulations, codes of practice and technical standards approved by public bodies. A number of international labour Conventions require this to be done as regards the entire subject-matter of the Convention; others call for specific prohibitions, criteria or exposure limits to be established. National legislation, whether in the form of labour codes or specific laws on occupational safety and health, often further provides for detailed standards or regulations to be laid down by public bodies in mandatory form or approved as guidelines; normally, the bodies concerned enjoy considerable discretion regarding the areas in which rules are to be established and their content. In the context of this article, it may be of importance for such rules to specify the persons or bodies on whom the obligation to ensure compliance with their terms rests. A number of international labour Conventions call for this to be done; for instance, the ILO Occupational Cancer Convention, 1974 (No. 139).

Failure to observe provisions of non-mandatory rules such as codes of practice does not in itself provide a ground for civil or criminal proceedings. At the same time, such failure may be taken into account in proceedings regarding non-compliance with a more general, mandatory requirement, as showing that not all necessary care for its fulfilment has been taken.

The absence of general rules, or the failure of such rules to reflect up-to-date knowledge, does not necessarily release employers, manufacturers and others concerned from all liability and responsibility: some courts have taken the view that employers cannot shelter behind the inaction of public bodies. Thus, in 1971, the English High Court of Justice found, in a claim for damages for a severe form of decompression sickness (bone necrosis), that at the time when the injury occurred it was common knowledge among those concerned with compressed air tunnelling that the statutory decompression table was inadequate; the court held that it was the employer’s duty to keep his own knowledge up to date (Ransom v. Sir Robert McAlpine and Sons Ltd. 1971). In some countries the labour inspectorate appears to be expressly empowered to serve notice on employers to remedy dangerous conditions in respect of which no mandatory standards exist.

Manufacturers, suppliers and so on

Most countries have passed legislation or guidelines regarding the duties of manufacturers, suppliers and so on, in respect of occupational safety and health. Generally these relate to machinery and equipment, on the one hand, and dangerous substances on the other. Safety and health requirements regarding machinery and equipment, prior to their use at the workplace, may be said to be threefold: they must be as safe in design and construction as practicable; they must be tested to ensure that they are indeed safe; and they must be made available on the market (through sale, hire, import or export) only when known to be safe. The primary obligation in this matter may lie with the vendor, the manufacturer or on all those concerned.

While general requirements regarding substances for use in work may be analogous to those regarding machinery, it is often a great deal more difficult to determine the effects of a particular substance on health. Consequently, while some national laws treat obligations regarding substances in the same way as those regarding machinery, others are also directly responsive to this difficulty. For example, the French Labour Code as amended in 1976 requires that, before any substance that may involve a danger to workers is marketed, “any person manufacturing, importing or selling it” shall provide approved institutions with the information necessary to the assessment of risks (section L. 231-7); any such person may further be required to assist in evaluating the risk. In many countries, duties in this matter also include factors such as the labelling of hazardous substances and information on safe handling procedures. These duties may not necessarily be confined to the period when the product was first marketed: in the United Kingdom, for example, there may be an obligation to do whatever might be reasonable in the circumstances to keep up to date with current knowledge and to act with whatever promptness fairly reflects the nature of that information. The action to be taken would depend on the gravity of likely consequences of the risk, as well as the gravity of the consequences arising from withdrawal of the product (Wright v. Dunlop Rubber Co. and another 1971). It should also be noted that there is increasing international interest and activity concerning the harmonization of labels for hazardous substances. For example, ILO Conventions 170 and 174 contain export notification requirements.

Enforcement of Duties in Respect of Safety and Health

There are two ways of being made liable for failure to comply with a duty: one is to be called to account for the failure itself, irrespective of whether it has had any consequences. The other is to be made answerable for the consequences of that failure.

Public bodies

It is very difficult in most countries to enforce by legal action obligations of public bodies to exercise their regulatory power, such as the obligation deriving from certain labour Conventions and much national legislation to establish regulations on occupational safety and health. Some common law countries know procedures such as the order of mandamus, which can be claimed by a directly interested person to compel public officers to perform duties imposed upon them by common law or by statute (there is, however, little evidence that such procedures are currently used in the present context). In any case, their use is made more difficult where, as often, the legislation in question leaves public bodies a large discretion as to the areas, means and timing of action. The main methods for obtaining action by public authorities are extra-legal. For example, pressure may be brought to bear by unions, consumer groups or other forms of public opinion (these methods do not constitute enforcement in any proper sense of the term).

More widely, measures taken by public authorities can be set aside on the ground that they do not comply with the law, go beyond the powers conferred by the law (ultra vires) or, more generally, are inappropriate or unreasonable. This is not strictly enforcement of an obligation, but rather definition of its limits.

Manufacturers and suppliers

Where legislation in the area of occupational safety and health places express obligations on manufacturers and suppliers, it tends also to lay down penalties for failure to observe those obligations (e.g., France, United Kingdom, Denmark, Sweden). In some countries the penalty for infringement can be only a fine; this would appear to be the situation in the United Kingdom except where a prohibition notice has not been complied with. In some countries repeated infringements may involve liability to imprisonment, as in France and Venezuela. In yet other countries, the basic sanctions can be either fine or imprisonment; this is the case under Section 1, Chapter 8, of the Swedish Working Environment Act, 1978.

Preventing the distribution of machinery and substances not meeting safety and health requirements must be one of the main aims of enforcement in relation to manufacturers and suppliers. A number of legislative provisions directly reflect that concern (e.g., the French Labour Code provides for possible emergency procedures to suspend the marketing of dangerous substances or the use of unsafe machinery; it also provides for the possible cancellation of sales or leases under which unsafe equipment was provided).


All recent international labour Conventions in the field of occupational safety and health provide for the supervision of their implementation by appropriate inspection services. For an in-depth discussion on labour inspectorates, see “Labour inspection” in this chapter. Of particular relevance here, however, is the question whether labour inspectors may directly initiate prosecutions, whether they have to go through hierarchical superiors or whether they have to submit their recommendations to other authorities such as public prosecutors. Various statistics show that the number of prosecutions, in relation to the number of violations of safety provisions found, is very low.


Where an employer may delegate responsibility for occupational safety and health matters, or where relevant legislation places obligations directly on technical or supervisory staff, the duties of the persons concerned are usually enforced in a manner analogous to the enforcement of those of the employer. Some legislation expressly makes it clear that orders and prohibitions issued by the labour inspectorate may be addressed to such persons (e.g., Sweden and the United Kingdom). Similarly, the persons concerned are often expressly covered by the same penalty provisions of the relevant legislation as employers. Moreover, measures may be taken in relation to them which are not possible in relation to an employer.

Differing disciplinary powers exist in a number of jurisdictions in relation to the obligations regarding safety and health of workers. The range of disciplinary penalties for minor offences goes from verbal warning to withholding of one day’s wages; for serious offences, from public reprimand through transfer and suspension for a few days to debarment from promotion for up to one year; and for very serious offences, from the withholding of seven to 15 days’ wages through suspension for up to two months, and debarment from promotion for two years to dismissal.

Penal liability may also exist for violation of the duties of workers in respect of occupational safety and health. In some cases such liability is expressly limited to serious offences (e.g., Spain); in others, such liability is limited to specific duties. For instance, under Section L. 263-2 of the French Labour Code as amended in 1976, the ordinary worker appears to be penally liable only for the introduction or distribution of alcoholic beverages in the place of work.

Elsewhere, the liability is more general (e.g., the United Kingdom, Denmark and Sweden) but the possible fine may nevertheless be limited (e.g., in Mexico to not more than one week’s wages). At the same time, there are countries in which there is no penal liability as an enforcement measure for a duty of workers who exercise no supervisory responsibility. This would appear to be the case, for example, under the labour codes of certain countries of Eastern Europe. Similarly, in the United States, under the Occupational Safety and Health Act, 1970, only the employer is liable to the civil penalties laid down for nonobservance of safety and health provisions.

Consequences of Occupational Accidents or Diseases

Social security

One of the main concerns, following an occupational accident or illness, is to ensure the continued livelihood of the victim and the victim’s family. The main means to that end is workers’ compensation. An examination of employment injury benefit schemes in general falls outside the scope of this chapter, but some aspects of the subject are relevant. 

First, in quite a number of countries employment injury benefit is provided under schemes based on the principle of the individual employer’s liability. In some countries this liability is compulsorily insured, while in many others it is up to the employer to decide whether to insure or not, and he or she may remain jointly and severally liable with the insurer even if the employer does insure. In addition, there are a number of countries in which national social insurance schemes do not yet cover all workers and the remainder are protected under a scheme of employer’s liability. Individual employer’s liability is based on risk, not fault: in other words, the employer is required to meet the consequences of an accident or disease causally related to employment, within defined limits and on prescribed conditions. There may be provision for additional benefit in case of “serious fault” of the employer.

Secondly, account may be taken, in the financing of employment injury insurance, of the employment injury record of particular industries or of individual employers. (As a general principle of financing, this applies only where employment injuries are covered as a distinct branch of social security and, even in such cases, not universally.) Collective or individual rating as applied in many countries is designed to establish a contribution rate corresponding to likely expenditure, but there are also systems of individual rating that are designed to meet actual cost during the observation period (France, United States), or under which a collective rate is increased or decreased for individual undertakings in the light of expenditure on accidents in their employment or the effectiveness of preventive measures (Canada, Germany, Italy, Japan). Whatever the general principle of financing applied, there may be penalties added to the contribution rate of an employer who fails to carry out prescribed preventive measures, and many countries make special provision, under the social security scheme and, again, whatever the general principle of financing, for financial penalties where accidents occur owing to the serious misconduct or gross negligence of the employer; in some countries, the employer is liable in such a case for the reimbursement of the entire expenditure incurred by the insurance institution. There are divergences of view regarding the value of recourse to one or another of the various schemes. All of them, though in different ways, require an administrative infrastructure which makes them difficult to apply in developing countries and costly anywhere. In addition, individual rating based on recorded experience is difficult to apply to small undertakings.

Thirdly, in a number of countries social security institutions play an active role in the promotion of occupational safety and health. In some countries that role includes not only the setting of safety standards but also their enforcement, including the imposition of penalties. This has been the case, in particular, in Canada, Chile, France, Germany and Luxembourg.

Finally, the possibilities open to a worker or to his or her survivors to bring into play the civil liability of the employer or of fellow-employees are often limited by reference to the existence of social security. Three main approaches may be distinguished.

First, in some countries with employment injury schemes based on the principle of the individual employer’s liability, there is an option: the worker can claim the benefit of the statutory no-fault workers’ compensation legislation or he or she can sue under the general rules of tort, in principle on the ground of fault. The choice cannot be altered once made to the extent of lodging a claim or instituting proceedings. Accordingly, a worker who opts for the potentially higher benefits of the civil action also runs the risk of obtaining no benefit at all if the action does not succeed.

A second solution—applied in many Western European countries, in French-speaking Africa, in Canada, in Mexico, and in Pakistan—is that of giving the employer and fellow employees immunity from civil action in respect of normal cases covered by the employment injury scheme. Civil action remains possible—perhaps in theory rather than in practice—where the employer or a fellow employee can be shown to have acted with intent. In some countries it also remains possible where there has been penal sanction (Italy), gross negligence (Norway) or serious fault (Switzerland), while elsewhere the “inexcusable” or other serious fault of the employer leads to an increase of social security benefits at the employer’s expense (France, Spain, Mexico, many French-speaking African countries). The concepts of serious or inexcusable fault have been defined by case-law or legislation in the countries concerned; the gravity of the fault tends to be either in the degree of disregard for the likely consequences of an act or omission, or in the failure to deal with dangers which have been drawn expressly to the employer’s attention, as a result of previous accidents or otherwise. In some of the countries following this approach, civil action also remains possible to cover elements of compensation, such as damages for pain and suffering, which are not covered by the statutory scheme (Austria, Belgium, Switzerland).

The third approach is to allow unlimited recourse to civil liability actions, with a view to supplementing the employment injury benefit received under social security. That recourse applies in some countries—Greece, Japan, Sweden, and the United Kingdom—to liability both for fault and, in so far as it exists, to liability without fault; in others it applies only to liability for fault (Chile, Columbia, Peru). The approach is also followed in the Netherlands and some of the countries of Eastern Europe, where occupational accidents and diseases are not treated as a distinct branch of social security.

It should be added that, while social security schemes regarding employment injuries tend to cover all employment-related accidents, they are often far from covering all employment-related diseases. Causality may be more difficult to establish in cases of occupational disease, and the question of responsibility may be further complicated where a disease takes a long period of time to manifest itself and may not appear until some time after employment has ceased. As regards diseases not covered—for instance, because the scheme has an exhaustive list of compensable diseases—the ordinary rules of civil liability apply.

Civil liability

The possibility of recourse to civil action in respect of the consequences of occupational accidents and diseases is far from general. Where action against the employer and fellow employees is excluded or severely limited, it remains open against the manufacturer or supplier, but only in respect of the consequences of shortcomings in machinery, equipment or substances. Moreover, in some of the countries in which civil action is freely available both the number of claims made and the proportion of them which go to the courts are relatively small (this is true of both accident/illness and discrimination cases).

There are a number of bases on which a civil action can be brought. It may be based on the breach of a contractual obligation (under a contract of employment, a contract for services, or, conceivably, a supply contract). It is more likely to be brought in tort, on the ground of a civil wrong or breach of a duty established by law. Such actions may in turn relate to a breach of a duty at common law, under the general terms of a civil code or under a labour code, or they may relate to a breach of specific statutory obligations in the field of safety and health. Finally, a tort action may be available for fault or on the basis of “strict” or “objective” liability—that is, for risk without fault.

The plaintiff

Where a civil action is not excluded by the system of workers’ compensation, that action is available to those injured by the consequences of a breach of duty, whether by fault or by the creation of a risk. First and foremost, the action is available to the worker who suffered an employment injury due to such a breach. It is generally also available, in case of death of the worker, to his or her survivors, although these may be variously defined as persons actually dependent on the worker, or persons whose maintenance the worker was required by law to ensure. There have been some decisions recognizing that in certain circumstances trade unions may have an interest in bringing an independent civil action (for example, this has occurred in France and Italy). Elsewhere there is no evidence of a systematic attempt by unions to bring civil actions to defend their own interests in the matter; the more usual situation is that of unions supporting, financially or otherwise, the claims of those directly concerned. Proceedings under social security legislation for increases in benefit on the ground of inexcusable fault of the employer may, in some countries, be initiated by the competent social security institution as well as by those directly concerned. Moreover, social security institutions which have paid benefits may be able to sue to recover these from a person civilly liable for an employment injury.

The defendant

A civil action may lie against a wide range of persons or bodies with duties in the field of safety and health. In practice, where such action is not precluded by social security legislation, the great majority of civil claims are made against the employer. Nearly everywhere, the employer is also liable to make good injuries caused by the wrongful acts or omissions of his or her employees, whatever the level of their responsibilities, in the exercise of their duties, although the basis for that liability differs. Common law countries have the concept of “vicarious liability”; some civil law countries base liability on the fact that the employer is the commetant (the one having engaged in the act). Both of these have undertones of agency and the practical effects are analogous. Elsewhere, the liability of the employer is derived from his or her own fault in the choice of employees or their supervision. Usually, the liability of the employer does not prevent simultaneous or parallel action against the worker who caused the damage. In any case, the injured party usually prefers to sue the employer.

The extent to which the employer is liable to make good injuries caused by the wrongful acts or omissions of persons other than his or her employees is a more difficult question. In some jurisdictions, there is legislation or case-law the effect of which is to make an undertaking responsible in certain circumstances for compliance with duties in respect of safety and health of workplaces under its control, even if the risks at issue have been created by third parties such as sub-contractors, or with duties in respect of employees working outside the employing undertaking even where another undertaking has control of the workplace. Except to the extent that statutory provisions go further, liability in such a case appears to be based on the notion that the employer is at fault in that he or she is not ensuring the execution of duties laid upon him or her and of which one cannot rid oneself by contractual or other relations with third parties; if he or she has done all that a reasonable employer could have done, there is no liability.

There is also the question of recourse actions. More than one person may be concurrently responsible for the situation which led to an employment injury: manufacturer and employer, employer and contractor, and so forth. Or the employer may have been made liable for the acts of others. Where the worker chooses or is compelled to seek a remedy against only one of several joint “tortfeasors” or against the employer rather than against those for whose acts the employer is liable, the person sued is normally able to claim a contribution from the others responsible.

Burden of proof and causation

The burden of proof in a civil action rests with the plaintiff: it is up to the plaintiff to demonstrate the grounds for that action. The plaintiff has to show, first, that he or she has the correct defendant. This should not normally create any difficulty in relation to an action against the employer. On the other hand, there may be a real difficulty—particularly in cases of disease with slow manifestation—in showing who was the manufacturer or supplier of the machinery or substances alleged to be unsafe. It appears that in certain matters related to workplace injuries, such as the manufacture of asbestos, suits are now brought jointly against all major manufacturers if responsibility cannot initially be pinned on one company.

Secondly, the plaintiff has to make out the claim against the defendant. Where a claim is based on strict liability, whether in respect of employment injuries in general or in respect of injuries caused by particular categories of dangerous objects, it is necessary only to show that the injury was indeed caused by employment or by the risk in question. Where a claim is based on non-performance of a specific statutory duty and the statutory provision leaves no discretion as to the manner of its performance, it is necessary to make out a case that the duty was not performed as stated; since this is a question of fact, it should not normally create major problems of proof. But where a statutory duty leaves a discretion—for instance by the use of such terms as “reasonably practicable”—or where a claim is based on a duty of care (under common law, under the general provisions of civil codes or under labour codes) demonstrating that the duty has not been fulfilled is not always easy. Accordingly, courts have considered to what extent the burden of proving whether there has or has not been fault should be placed on the employer or other defendant rather than the worker.

While some national approaches such as these relieve the plaintiff of the need to demonstrate the manner in which a careful employer would have prevented the accident or illness, they do not at all imply that the case will necessarily be won. In a proportion of cases it will be possible for the defendant to demonstrate that he or she had been as careful as possible in the circumstances (i.e., that he or she was not at fault). This is particularly true if a special degree of fault is necessary for an action to succeed—as in actions for additional social security benefits by reference to an “inexcusable fault” of the employer.

Whether the civil action is based on fault or on risk, it is necessary to show that the injury suffered is the result of that fault or risk (i.e., a causal connection between them must be demonstrated). It is not usually required that the fault or risk be the sole or determining cause, but it must be one immediate cause of the injury. The problem of showing a causal connection is particularly acute in cases of illness the origin of which is not yet fully understood—although courts have sometimes interpreted the law so as to give the benefit of the doubt to the worker. This difficulty may be caused by factors such as the worker having been exposed to new technology or a new substance, the full implications of which are not yet known; the disease may have a long latency period, or the worker may have been subject to complex exposures. Even in cases of accidental injury it is not always possible to prove “on the balance of probabilities” (the required degree of proof in civil actions) that the injury was due to the demonstrated fault. There are also cases in which the causal connection between a demonstrated fault and an injury is broken by the intervening tortious act of a person for whose acts the person being sued is not liable, although an intervening act does not necessarily break the chain of causation.


Even where fault or risk and its causal connection to an injury has been demonstrated, a number of possible defences may permit the defendant to reduce or even avoid liability.

First and foremost is the fault of the injured worker. Such fault may take the forms of failure to comply with safety instructions, of a degree of carelessness going beyond inadvertence, of “frolics” (behaviour at the workplace unrelated to the normal performance of work), of violation of orders, or of drunkenness. Different systems of law have sought to balance the degree of such fault and the degree of fault of the defendant in compensating injury.

A second defence known in some countries is that of volenti non fit injuria (i.e., that the injured worker knowingly and voluntarily assumed the risk which led to the injury). Given the inequality in standing between employer and worker, courts have been reluctant to consider that this defence applied in ordinary cases in which a worker performed work, with or without protest, which he or she knew to involve a risk other than the normal risk inherent in the work. While in the past it was a recognized practice to give workers who enter inherently dangerous jobs “hazard pay” as a contractual counterpart for the assumption of the risk, there is doubt as to the validity of contracts under which the worker agrees, even for consideration, to bear the consequences of risks for which the employer would normally be liable, and such contracts may indeed be expressly prohibited. On the other hand, the law looks kindly on the worker who knowingly and deliberately courts danger in order to save other persons. The law also increasingly protects workers who remove themselves from situations involving imminent danger and who “whistle-blow” on violations of safety and health laws.

It is too early to say what effect, if any, this defence will have on statutory provisions permitting or requiring workers to stop work when they believe serious danger to be imminent. In any case, the protection of workers who choose to stop work (or to “blow the whistle”) from recriminations and victimization deserves further attention in all jurisdictions.

From time to time, defendants have tried to rely on the fact that the dangerous working practice which led to an accident was widely used in the industry. There is no evidence that this has led to a limitation of liability. Conversely, the fact that certain good practices are widely followed in an industry has been regarded as evidence that a particular defendant not applying these practices was at fault.

Time limits for the submission of claims

Most legal systems permit civil actions to be brought only within a relatively short period after the date when the cause accrued; the usual period is two or three years and may be as short as 12 months. Since longer delays increase the difficulties of establishing facts, these time bars are in the interests of all concerned.

However, with the emergence of occupational diseases which manifest themselves only many years after exposure to the substances or agents responsible for them—in particular, but not exclusively, various forms of occupational cancer—it became clear that in certain circumstances it was necessary to have, as the starting point of the time limits for the submission of claims, the moment at which the worker concerned knew that he or she had a cause of action. This is now widely provided for in relevant special legislation or as a special provision in general Limitation Acts. This does not necessarily resolve all difficulty: it is not always easy to determine the precise moment in time when a claimant had or should have had all the elements enabling the worker to sue. This is somewhat easier where the disease is included in a schedule or classification of diseases

Categories of damage

Damages which may be obtained through a civil action tend to fall into three main categories, although not all three are universally obtainable: (a) payment of all medical and rehabilitation expenses not covered by social security; (b) payment of earnings lost, in most countries to the extent that they are not covered by social security; and (c) damages for pain and suffering, disfigurement and loss of enjoyment and expectation of life. The principle of tort is restitution—that is, the plaintiff should be in a position no worse than he or she would have been had the tort not been committed.

Earnings lost are in some cases compensated by periodic payments supplementary to any relevant periodic payments from social security and to such earnings as the worker is able to obtain after the injury, so as to bring total income to the level of previous earnings. It is more usual for compensation to take the form of lump sums. Where there is continuing incapacity or death, the assessment of future losses which has to be made is necessarily speculative both as to the level of earnings and as to life expectancy. Where there is an award to survivors the speculation bears not only on likely future earnings but on likely future support. Although an attempt is made to take inflation and taxation into account, it is very difficult to do so to a realistic extent with lump sum payments. It is not surprising in these circumstances that lump sum awards for loss of earnings vary greatly, and that a periodic allocation will sometimes be preferable (period payments may more feasibly take taxation and inflation into account).

Compensation for non-pecuniary loss (such as pain and suffering) can necessarily be only an estimation of what is reasonable. Again, this leads to variations in the sums awarded. Some legal systems permit courts to award punitive damages, which may reach very large amounts.

Conflicts of law

Some reference must be made to the operation of civil liability where an employment injury arises in circumstances having potential links with several systems of law. Situations are now prevalent in which dangerous activities such as construction or rig drilling are carried out within the jurisdiction of one country by undertakings having the nationality of another country and employing workers from yet other countries. Should injury or disease accrue in such a situation, the rules of conflict of laws (which may also be called private international law) will come into play. These rules are not international in the sense of being universally or even generally recognized in all legal systems, but are a branch of and peculiar to each system of private law; with regard to many issues, however, there is little disagreement and certain areas of disagreement which remain are being diminished, in particular through the adoption of international conventions. When the rules of private international law are invoked in any legal system, they decide only three preliminary points. First, whether or not the courts of that legal system have jurisdiction over the issue at hand. If it is decided that the courts do indeed have jurisdiction, they must then go on to decide whether to apply their own internal rules or those of another legal system involved. Finally, they will decide whether they must recognize as decisive any foreign judgement already pronounced on the issue, or enforce any right vested in a party under a foreign judgement, or on the other hand treat such judgement or rights as nullities. The links between an injury and several countries may lead to “forum shopping” (i.e., the attempt to bring an action in the country where the highest damages are likely to be obtained).

Penal (criminal) liability

Penal or criminal liability following an employment injury, in the widest sense of liability to a penalty, may be incurred on four possible bases.

First, the occurrence of an accident or the apparent incidence of disease may bring into operation the provisions designed for the enforcement of laws and regulations regarding occupational safety and health. The inspectorate in most countries is too understaffed to keep a constant eye on all possible dangers. On the other hand, when accidents or diseases become known, in particular through their obligatory notification, this may lead to inspection visits and, as appropriate, criminal prosecution.

Secondly, some legislation concerning occupational safety and health contains special provisions regarding penalties applicable in the case of accidents or diseases, particularly where these are serious. The equivalent may be found in most systems of workers’ compensation in the form of increased contributions for poor health and safety performance.

Thirdly, employment injuries, particularly if serious or fatal, may bring into operation rules of criminal law not specifically related to occupational safety and health, such as those related to manslaughter, special rules on fires and explosions, and so on. There are some cases (examples may be found in Italy and the Netherlands) in which the normal penalties for the offences in question are increased where they were committed in a work setting.

Finally, there are cases in which penal codes contain specific provisions regarding injuries caused by violations of requirements on occupational safety and health.

It is sometimes expressly provided that action on one of these four bases does not exclude action on another. In some countries the reverse is true: in Sweden, for example, use by labour inspectors of their power to make compliance with remedial or prohibition orders subject to fines excludes recourse to action through the criminal courts. In some cases, but not always, the attitude to plurality of sanctions derives from the nature—civil, administrative or criminal—of those sanctions specifically designed for enforcement.

There would seem to be little doubt, although there are no formal statistics to prove it, that most of the low number of prosecutions in relation to occupational safety and health infringements relate to infringements which have caused injury. There is similarly no statistical information on the use made of general rules of criminal law in relation to employment injuries. It would appear, however, that there are greater variations in this respect from country to country than with respect to other aspects of enforcement.

Elements of the offence

There is a wide acceptance of the maxim that there should be no penalty without previous legal authority. While, therefore, it is possible for courts in civil proceedings to affirm the existence of legal duties not previously defined, this is not normally possible in penal proceedings. On the other hand, it is possible in penal proceedings to determine the practical implications of a duty established by previous authority: in practice, this distinction between civil and penal liability may be one of degree. Different legal systems also appear to agree that an offence is committed only if there has been intent or, in many of them, culpable negligence, unless a legislative enactment expressly provides otherwise.

The enforcement provisions of some legislation on occupational safety and health make it an offence not to comply with statutory requirements in the field, irrespective of whether there was intent or culpable negligence, and so do some special provisions in penal codes. This has been confirmed by case-law. For instance, in a decision of 28 February 1979, the Supreme Court of Spain held that failure to comply with prescribed safety measures in the construction industry was sufficient in itself to give rise to sanctions under the corresponding enforcement measures. In some cases this strict liability carries only administrative or civil penalties. In many countries, the difference between strict liability, on the one hand, and the requirement of deliberate action, on the other, may not be as great in practice as appears at first sight. There are variations between different legal systems as regards the degree of negligence necessary for it to be “culpable” so as to warrant the imposition of penalties.

Initiation of penal proceedings

In principle, all prosecutions are a matter for the appropriate public authorities; criminal sanctions are intended for the protection of the interests of the community and not of the individual. There are, however, some possibilities for private prosecutions in certain circumstances (e.g., in Switzerland, Austria, England, Finland and France). Sometimes an inspector may institute proceedings, but it is more usual for action to be taken by public prosecutors, district attorneys, state solicitors and similar authorities. They act upon information from inspectors, social security bodies, the injured person, or members of the public, but the final decision regarding action is theirs. In principle, if they are satisfied that an offence appears to have been committed, they should act.

Two additional comments should be made. First, in respect of penal proceedings, the statutory periods of limitation do not so far appear to have given rise to difficulty (possibly because periods of limitation for penal purposes are often very long). Secondly, penal legislation is territorial, in the sense that it applies only to an offence which has effect in the territory over which the enacting legislation has jurisdiction. In transnational work situations, this limitation of jurisdiction can raise the problem of where the power to control health and safety lies.

Persons liable

Penal proceedings, like civil proceedings, are in principle possible in relation to any person with duties in the field of occupational safety and health. A problem which arises is that of the liability of legal persons (i.e., of corporations which have duties as manufacturers or employers). It is a widespread principle in criminal law that only natural persons can be liable: in many cases that principle is absolute, in others it applies only to some offences. In connection with occupational safety and health some countries expressly envisage the possible penal liability of corporations. Because of general principles of criminal law, certain of these do so only as regards penalties imposed by the labour inspectorate or other administrative and civil sanctions (e.g., some Scandinavian countries, Belgium, Spain), whereas others do not make that distinction (e.g., England, the United States). It is sometimes expressly specified that the liability of companies is to be enforced by means of fines. Contrary to the situation in many countries, proceedings in England are brought against the corporate employer in preference to any individual working within the undertaking, on the assumption that the company has a much greater degree of control.

Individuals—whether non-corporate employers, or directors or managers of companies—may be made liable for violation of the employer’s duties, directors or managers being liable in place of or in addition to corporations. For this purpose there must be a personal fault. Given the generality of the duties widely laid upon the employer, it is not difficult for courts to find that there is some omission. Nevertheless, there are cases of acquittal on the ground that there was no personal fault of the individual employer or director. In certain circumstances an employer may delegate duties as regards occupational safety and health (and the corresponding penal liability) to line management, or duties in this matter may be laid directly upon technical and supervisory staff. Case-law shows that the penal liability so laid on the staff in question is not simply theoretical. In France, the Criminal Court of Béthune, on 22 January 1981, held the chief engineer of a mine guilty of involuntary manslaughter in respect of a firedamp explosion in 1974 which cost 40 lives; he was found seriously negligent in not having installed a gas detector. In Italy, in the 1977 case concerning the use of benzene in a dye factory, the general manager, the technical manager and the works physician, as well as the owners and the managing director, were found guilty of involuntary homicide. A study made in Finland (1979) of penal responsibility in practice showed that 19% of charges and 15% of convictions concerned managers, 36% and 36% respectively concerned executives, and 35% and 38% respectively concerned supervisors. Penal proceedings against workers who do not have technical or supervisory responsibilities are possible in a number of countries, but not universally; they would appear to be used relatively sparingly and to require a high level of personal fault.


It is generally no defence in penal proceedings that the accused did not know the law. Conversely, it is often emphasized that it is the duty of the employer and of technical and supervisory staff to have all relevant knowledge.

In penal proceedings, contrary to the situation in civil cases, the fact that the negligence of the victim contributed to an accident is also generally not a defence. For instance, a Swiss court in 1972 convicted an employer following the electrocution of a worker who was loading metal onto a truck under a live electric main; it held that, while the worker himself could have taken the essential precaution of switching off the current, it was the responsibility of the supervisor (in this case the employer) to ensure the safety of the worker by so doing.

On the other hand, there may be a variety of extenuating circumstances which are taken into account by courts with respect to the penalty to be imposed (for example, an exemplary work record). In a Swiss case in which an accident resulted from the insufficient shoring of a drainage trench, the fact that the employer had tried to save working hours for the benefit of the employees working on piece rates, while not a defence, was taken into account in sentencing.


Earlier (in the section on enforcement) some examples were given of the penalties possible under legislation on occupational safety and health. In many cases the financial penalties so laid down have higher ceilings than those available under more general penal codes and statutes.

On the other hand, the range of possible sentences of imprisonment is more likely to be greater under general penal codes and statutes.

In certain circumstances, other types of penalty are possible, such as being banned from the occupation in which a homicide occurred. Moreover, under Section L. 263-3-1 of the French Labour Code as amended in 1976, in the case of accident in an undertaking where serious or repeated infringements of safety and health rules have been observed, the court may require the undertaking to submit for its approval a plan to normalize conditions; if the undertaking fails to do so it may be required to implement some other plan approved by the court.

As in other areas of criminal law, it would appear that in practice the penalties imposed seldom encompass all possibilities or reach the possible maxima. Instances of imprisonment occur, but rarely. Fines are imposed, but rarely at maximum levels. 

Largely as a result of the scarcity of specifically compiled statistical information, and the fact that it appears very few health and safety claims actually make it as far as a courtroom, it is extremely difficult to evaluate the deterrent effects of civil and criminal liability, either in absolute terms or in relation to each other. It is similarly difficult to determine the role which legal liability plays in prevention relative to social security or voluntary compliance measures. The criminal law none the less remains a deterrent, along with civil law remedies, of health and safety violations.


Ilise Levy Feitshans*

*This article is based on a presentation to the Columbia University Seminars on Labour and Employment, sponsored by the Center for the Study of Human Rights, Columbia University, February 13, 1995.

“The enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health is one of the fundamental rights of every human being ... . The achievement of any State in the promotion and protection of health is of value to all.” Preamble to the Constitution of the World Health Organization (WHO).

The concept of universality is a fundamental tenet of international law. This concept is exemplified by the issues raised in occupational safety and health because no work is immune from the dangers of occupational hazards. (Examples of the literature describing occupational safety and health hazards from different types of work include: Corn 1992; Corn 1985; Faden 1985; Feitshans 1993; Nightingale 1990; Rothstein 1984; Stellman and Daum 1973; Weeks, Levy and Wagner 1991.)

The universal threat to the fundamental human rights of life and security of person posed by unhealthy working conditions has been characterized in international human rights instruments and ILO standards. According to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, proclaimed in 1948 (United Nations General Assembly 1994) Article 3, “Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person”. The Preamble to the ILO Constitution considers “the protection of the worker against sickness, disease and injury arising out of his employment” as a precondition to “Universal and lasting peace”. Therefore, improvement of the conditions of living and work is a fundamental component of the ILO’s view of universal rights.

As described in a recent exhibit at the UN Secretariat in New York, United Nations staff have been tortured, imprisoned, kidnapped and even killed by terrorists. United Nations Commission on Human Rights, (UNCHR) Resolution 1990/31 pays attention to these hazards, underscoring the need to implement existing mechanisms for compliance with international human rights to occupational safety and health. For these professionals, their role as a conduit for life-saving communication about other people, and their commitment to their employer’s principled work, placed them at equal if not greater risk to other workers, without the benefit of recognizing occupational safety and health concerns when formulating their own work agenda.

All workers share the right to safe and healthful working conditions, as articulated in international human rights instruments, regardless of whether they be confronted in fieldwork, in traditional offices or workplace settings, or as “telecommuters”. This view is reflected in international human rights instruments regarding occupational safety and health, codified in the United Nations Charter in 1945 (United Nations 1994) and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, amplified in major international covenants on human rights (e.g., the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights 1966), described in major human rights treaties, such as the International Convention on the Elimination of All Discrimination Against Women passed in 1979, and embodied in the work of the ILO and the WHO as well as in regional agreements (see below).

Defining occupational health for the purposes of understanding the magnitude of the governmental and employers’ responsibility under international law is complex; the best statement is found in the Preamble of the Constitution of the WHO: “Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” The term “well-being” is extremely important, because it is consistently used in human rights instruments and international agreements pertaining to health.

Equally important is the construction of the definition itself: by its very terms, this definition reveals the consensus that health is a composite of the interaction of several complex factors: physical, mental and social well-being, all of these together being measured by an adequate standard of well-being that is greater than “merely the absence of disease or infirmity”. This term, by its very nature, is not tied to specific standards of health, but is amenable to interpretation and application in a flexible framework for compliance.

Thus, the legal foundation for implementing international human rights to occupational health protections in the workplace from the perspective of security of the person as a facet of protecting the human right to health constitutes an important corpus of international labour standards. The question therefore remains whether the right of individuals to occupational safety and health falls under the rubric of international human rights, and if so, which mechanisms can be deployed to assure adequate occupational safety and health. Further, developing new methods for resolving compliance issues will be the major task for ensuring the application of human rights protection in the next century.

Overview of International Rights to Protection for Occupational Safety and Health

Law of human rights reflected in the United Nations Charter

Protection of the right to health is among the fundamental constitutional principles of many nations. In addition, an international consensus exists regarding the importance of providing safe and healthful employment, which is reflected in many international human rights instruments, echoing legal concepts from many nations, including national or local legislation or constitutionally guaranteed health protections. Laws requiring inspections to prevent occupational accidents were passed in Belgium in 1810, France in 1841 and Germany in 1839 (followed by medical examination requirements in 1845).The issue of “entitlements” to health care and health protections was raised in the analysis of the potential for US ratification of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (e.g., Grad and Feitshans 1992). Broader questions regarding the human right to health protections have been addressed, although not fully resolved, in the United Nations Charter; in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; in Articles 7 and 12 of the International Covenant on Economic and Social Rights; and in subsequent standards by the ILO and the WHO, and other UN-based international organizations.

Under the United Nations Charter the contracting parties state their aspiration to “promote” economic and social advancement and “better standards of life”, including the promotion of human rights protections, in Article 13. Using language that recalls the ILO’s Constitutional mandate under the Treaty of Versailles, Article 55 specifically notes the linkage between the “creation of conditions of stability and well-being” for peace and “higher standards of living” and “universal respect for, and observance of, human rights and fundamental freedoms”. The debate regarding the interpretation of these terms, and whether they encompassed all or only a fraction of recognized constitutional rights of UN Member States, was unduly politicized throughout the Cold War Era.

This handful of basic documents share one weakness, however—they offer vague descriptions of protections for life, security of the person and economically-based rights to employment without explicitly mentioning occupational safety and health. Each of these documents employs human rights rhetoric ensuring “adequate” health and related basic human rights to health, but it is difficult to patch together a consensus regarding the quality of care or “better standards of life” for implementing protections.

Occupational safety and health protections under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR)

Security of the person, as discussed in UDHR Article 3

Although there is no case-law interpreting this term, Article 3 of the UDHR ensures each person’s right to life. This includes occupational health hazards and the effects of occupational accidents and work-related diseases.

The cluster of employment rights in UDHR Articles 23, 24 and 25

There is a small but significant cluster of rights relating to employment and “favourable conditions of work” listed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The principles articulated in three consecutive articles of the UDHR are an outgrowth of history, reflected in older laws. One problem exists from the standpoint of occupational health analysis: the UDHR is a very important, widely-accepted document but it does not specifically address the issues of occupational safety and health. Rather, references to issues surrounding security of person, quality of conditions of work and quality of life allow for an inference that occupational safety and health protections fall under UDHR’s rubric. For example, while the right to work in “favourable conditions of work” is not actually defined, occupational health and safety hazards certainly impact upon the achievement of such social values. Also, the UDHR requires that human rights protections at the worksite ensure the preservation of “human dignity”, which has implications not only for the quality of life, but for the implementation of programmes and strategies that prevent degrading working conditions. The UDHR therefore provides a vague but valuable blueprint for international human rights activity surrounding issues of occupational safety and health.

International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR)

The meaning and enforcement of these rights are amplified by the principles enumerated in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), Part III, Article 6 and 7b, which assures all workers the right to “Safe and healthy working conditions”. Article 7 provides greater insight to the meaning of the right to just and favourable conditions of work. “Favourable conditions of work” includes wages and hours of work (ICESCR Article 7.1 (a) (i)) as well as “Safe and healthy working conditions” (Summers 1992). The use of this phrase within the context of favourable conditions of work therefore lends greater meaning to the UDHR’s protections and demonstrates the clear nexus between other human rights principles and protection of occupational safety and health, as further amplified in ICESCR Article 12.

Promotion of industrial hygiene under Article 12 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights

Of all the UN-based international human rights documents, ICESCR Article 12 most clearly and deliberately addresses health, referring to the explicit right to health protection through “industrial hygiene” and protection against “occupational disease”. Further, Article 12’s discussion regarding improved industrial hygiene is consistent with Article 7(b) of the ICESCR regarding safe and healthful working conditions. Yet, even this express guarantee of occupational safety and health protection does not offer detailed exposition of the meaning of these rights, nor does it list the possible approaches that could be applied for achieving the ICESCR’s goals. Consistent with the principles articulated in many other international human rights documents, Article 12 employs deliberate language that recalls the WHO’s Constitutional notions of health. Without question, Article 12 embraces the notion that health concerns and attention to individual well-being include occupational safety and health. Article 12 reads:

The States Parties to the present Covenant recognize the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health ... The steps to be taken by the States Parties to the present Covenant to achieve the full realization of this right shall include those necessary for: ...

(b) The improvement of all aspects of environmental and industrial hygiene;

(c) The prevention, treatment and control of epidemic, endemic, occupational and other diseases.

Significantly, Article 12 also pays direct attention to the impact of occupational disease on health, thereby accepting and giving validity to a sometimes-controversial area of occupational medicine as worthy of human rights protection. Under Article 12 the States Parties recognize the right to physical and mental health proclaimed indirectly in Article 25 of the UDHR, in the American Declaration, the European Social Charter, and the revised Organization of American States (OAS) Charter (see below). Additionally, in Paragraph 2, they commit themselves to a minimum of four “steps” to be taken to achieve the “full realization” of this right.

It should be noted that Article 12 does not define “health”, but follows the definition stated in the WHO Constitution. According to Grad and Feitshans (1992), Paragraph 1 of the Draft Covenant prepared under the auspices of the Commission on Human Rights, however, did define the term by applying the definition in the WHO Constitution: “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being, and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” Like the ILO with respect to Articles 6-11 of the ICESCR, WHO provided technical help in drafting Article 12. The Third Committee did not accept WHO’s efforts to include a definition, arguing that such detail would be out of place in a legal text, that no other definitions were included in other articles of the Covenant, and that the proposed definition was incomplete.

The words “environmental and industrial hygiene” appear without the benefit of interpretive information in the text of the preparatory records. Citing other resolutions of the 1979 World Health Assembly, the report also expresses concern for “the uncontrolled introduction of some industrial and agricultural process(es) with physical, chemical, biological and psychosocial hazards” and notes that the Assembly further urged Member States “to develop and strengthen occupational health institutions and to provide measures for preventing hazards in work places” (Grad and Feitshans 1992). Repeating a theme expressed in many prior international human rights documents, “The right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health” is a goal clearly shared by employers, workers and governments of many nations—a goal that unfortunately remains as elusive as it is universal.

International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women

The International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (1979), Part III, Article 11(a), states that “The right to work is an inalienable right of all human beings”, and Article 11(f) lays down “The right of protection of health and to safety in working conditions, including the safeguarding of the function of reproduction”.

Article 11.2(a) prohibits “sanctions, dismissal on the grounds of maternity leave”, a subject of profound contemporary and historical conflict and violation of international human rights, under many legal systems of UN Member States. For pregnant women and other people who work, these important issues remain unresolved in the jurisprudence of pregnancy. Thus, Article 11.2 is unquestionably geared to overturning generations of ingrained institutional discrimination under law, which was an outgrowth of mistaken values regarding women’s ability during pregnancy or while raising a family. Issues from the perspective of the jurisprudence of pregnancy include the dichotomy between protectionism and paternalism which has been played out in litigation throughout the twentieth century. (US Supreme Court cases in this area range from a concern for limiting the hours of women’s work because of their need to be home raising families, upheld in Muller v. the State of Oregon, 208 U.S. 412 (1908), to the decision banning forced sterilizations of women who are exposed to reproductive health hazards in the workplace among other things in UAW v. Johnson Controls, 499 U.S. 187 (1991) (Feitshans 1994). The imprint of this dichotomy on the conceptual matrix of this Convention is reflected in Article 11.2(d), but is not clearly resolved since “special protections”, which are often necessary to prevent the disproportionately dangerous effects of working conditions, are often inappropriately viewed as beneficial.

Under the terms of this Convention, Article 11.2(d) endeavours “To provide special protection to women during pregnancy in types of work proved to be harmful to them”. Many facets of this provision are unclear, such as: what is meant by special protection; are effects limited to maternal harm during pregnancy; and if not, what are the implications for foetal protection? It is unclear from this Convention, however, what the standard of proof is to make a “special protection” necessary or acceptable, and also what is the scope of an acceptable protective mechanism.

Article 11.3 limits the reach of “special protections”, by clearly stating that implementation of occupational safety and health protections must be based on scientific evidence, rather than social values. Article 11.3 states: “Protective legislation relating to matters covered in this article shall be reviewed periodically in the light of scientific and technological knowledge and shall be revised, repealed or extended as necessary.” Methods for oversight and appropriate risk assessment also need to be spelled out, in order to ensure that improper exclusionary policies, such as forced sterilizations to retain or obtain employment, will be viewed as constituting gross violations of international human rights, and therefore will not be given credence under this Convention. These thorny issues have been litigated and will raise increasingly perplexing questions regarding implementation and compliance with the Convention’s principles as occupational epidemiology uncovers more reproductive health hazards and the need for effective preventive measures.

Additionally, the Convention’s drafters followed the pattern set by the ILO, describing a detailed reporting mechanism for oversight and compliance, in the form of mandatory regular reporting before the Convention’s Human Rights Commission. Under the Commission’s procedures, set forth in Article 18, State Parties to the Convention undertake to “report on the legislative, judicial, administrative or other measures which they have adopted to give effect to (these) provisions” within one year and at least once every four years, and may indicate impediments to implementation. The requisite development of standards that are needed to determine the necessary preventive strategies for reproductive health hazards in the workplace, may be addressed through this mechanism for the exchange of vital compliance information.

Regional Treaties and Declarations Regarding Human Rights

American Convention on Human Rights

The American Convention’s Preamble refers to economic and social rights including, in Article 3, the right to life. Yet the Convention does not specifically address health or working conditions as fundamental rights protected in other treaties. Significantly for the implementation of international human rights, however, this treaty provides a structure for a human rights commission and court by establishing the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. The Commission’s powers include the procedures for requests for information by the Commission against governments who are believed to have violated human rights. It does not directly address occupational safety and health questions confronting people who work in the Inter-American system.

The African (Banjul) Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights

The African (Banjul) Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, adopted June 27, 1981, provides an innovative perspective on established concepts of international human rights, as articulated in human rights instruments. As discussed by Alston (1984) from a theoretical standpoint without making specific reference to the African (Banjul) Charter itself, this instrument clearly represented a groundbreaking attempt to expand the realm of international human rights protections and make such protections available in a flexible framework for all people. Within its broad scope, the African (Banjul) Charter includes rights to a clean environment, political rights, and rights to sustainable aspects of development. Interestingly, and in stark contrast to the European Social Charter, the African (Banjul) Charter does not address protection of working conditions or occupational safety and health. In a manner that parallels the UDHR’s protection, the African (Banjul) Charter Article 4 prohibits human rights violations against “his life and integrity of his person”. Also consistent with UDHR Article 3, the African (Banjul) Charter Article 6 assures the security of person.

Following some of the language from the WHO Constitution which has become seminal to international human rights to health, Article 16 requires Parties to protect the “right to enjoy the best attainable state of physical and mental health”. Signatory Parties endeavour to “take the necessary measures to protect the health of their people and to ensure that they receive medical attention when they are sick”.

As in the case of many other international human rights instruments, the African (Banjul) Charter establishes a mechanism for oversight and compliance, in the form of a Human Rights Commission. States may request the examination of human rights violations by other States, assuming that exhaustion of remedies requirements have been met. These procedures are discussed in detail in Articles 30 through 59.

European Social Charter

In the European Social Charter promulgated in 1965, Part I(2) clearly states, “All workers have the right to just conditions of work”, and Part I(3) states, “All workers have the right to safe and healthy working conditions”. These rights are further described in Part II, Article 3, which offers a detailed discussion of “The Right to Safe and Healthy Working Conditions”, with a view to ensuring the effective exercise of the right to safe and healthy working conditions. Unlike other international human rights instruments, however, the European Social Charter also hints at the prospect of creating mechanisms for enforcement and other issues raised by implementation and compliance with international human rights norms within the plain meaning of the document itself. Article 3.2 requires Contracting Parties “to provide for the enforcement of such regulations by measures of supervisions”, and in Article 3.3 “to consult, as appropriate, employers’ and workers’ organizations on measures intended to improve upon industrial safety and health”. This impressive provision is amplified in its intensity by reporting mechanisms in Part IV, Articles 21 and 22, which allow for international scrutiny of implementation activities at regular intervals.

In addition to its remarkably comprehensive approach to international human rights protections, especially concerning occupational safety and health, it is also worth noting that the European Social Charter clearly and decisively sets forth the groundwork for future activities towards implementation and compliance with its provisions. For example, the reference to regulation and supervision in Article 3 is consistent with international monitoring and enforcement by Contracting Parties as well as NGOs, both in the European system and in their home jurisdictions. The concept of consultation between employers and workers, articulated in Article 3.3, goes beyond mirroring the tripartite structure of the ILO, foreshadowing as well the increasing acceptance of joint labour-management safety committees to achieve internal compliance with international human rights in employment.

ILO standards

As indicated in the Preamble to the ILO Constitution, “the protection of the worker against sickness, disease and injury arising out of his employment” is a precondition to “Universal and lasting peace”. Therefore, improvement of the conditions of living and work is a fundamental component of ILO Conventions and Recommendations. Johnston (1970) wrote, “The underlying principle is that certain basic human requirements should be removed from the sphere of international competition to secure certain minimum standards of strength and human dignity”. Although the ILO lacks the “universal authority ... to exclude a non-complying employer ... from the legitimate labour market”, Friedman (1969) envisions a stronger role for the ILO: “The day can be foreseen when the ILO laws and directives will attain such force, and the stigma of non-compliance will mean exclusion from an international labour market.”

The ILO has also fostered the creation of consistent standards for those safety problems which cannot be covered by Convention provisions without broaching ILO jurisdiction over sovereign nations. For example, ILO Codes of Practice regarding safety protections have served as the blueprint for occupational safety laws and regulations in such areas as dock work, transfer of technology to developing nations, civil engineering and heavy industries. These model codes, which are sometimes applied with minor modification as draft legislation, share the values expressed in several ILO Conventions pertaining to occupational safety and health (e.g., the Protection Against Accidents (Dockers) Convention (Revised), 1932 (No. 32); the Safety Provisions (Building) Convention, 1937 (No. 62); the Medical Examination of Young Persons (Industry) Convention, 1946 (No. 77) and the Medical Examination of Young Persons (Non-Industrial Occupations) Convention, 1946 (No. 78); the Guarding of Machinery Convention, 1963 (No. 119); the Hygiene (Commerce and Offices) Convention, 1964 (No. 120); the Occupational Safety and Health (Dock Work) Convention, 1979 (No. 152); and the Occupational Safety and Health Convention, 1981 (No. 155). The latter is considered in more detail below).

ILO Convention 155: Convention Concerning Occupational Safety and Health and the Working Environment, 1981, and its antecedents

Since its inception, the ILO has encouraged promotion of better working conditions. Early efforts focused upon accidents in particular, and legal remedies for workers’ compensation. This is evinced in the ILO’s early Conventions, such as: Convention 32, the Protection Against Accidents (Dockers) Convention (Revised), 1932; Convention 62, the Safety Provisions (Building) Convention, 1937 and in Conventions concerning medical examinations for workers and machine guards. By setting forth specific requirements for accident prevention, these Conventions served as a precedent for performance standards found in occupational safety regulations in many nations today. These Conventions reflect the constant theme that protection against occupational accidents is a right shared by all workers.

Consistent also with this heritage, Convention 155, Article 3(e) offers the definition of health, “in relation to work, indicates not merely the absence of disease or infirmity; it also includes the physical and mental elements affecting health which are directly related to safety and hygiene at work.” This definition is deceptively simple and comprehensive at the same time: it bespeaks the complex interaction between dangerous workplace exposures; individual lifestyle and environmental factors that impact upon the effects of working conditions (Mausner and Kramer 1985). In addition, this approach is multidimensional, because its concern for both physical and mental elements of health and well-being implicitly takes into account the effects of occupational stress and other mental problems.

But the heart of Convention 155 concerns the creation of effective national, regional and workplace mechanisms for implementation and compliance with other ILO standards. As adopted by the 67th Session of the International Labour Conference in 1981, Convention 155 fosters the creation, implementation and periodic evaluation of occupational safety and health standards among Member States of the ILO. For example, Article 4.1 states Convention 155’s goal of fostering the development of a “coherent national policy” concerning occupational safety and health protections. To this end, Convention 155 obligates ratifying Member States to promote research, statistical monitoring of hazardous exposures (such as medical surveillance measures, not unlike technical standards in Member States) and worker education and training. Convention 155 uses broad terminology to provide a regulatory framework. Consultation with representative organizations and employers is required before exemptions will be granted, and any exclusions of categories of workers requires reporting on efforts to achieve “any progress towards wider application” pursuant to Article 2.3. Convention 155 also fosters education for “representative organizations” and worker participation in the development and enforcement of occupational safety and health regulations internally and on regional, national and international levels.

ILO Conventions instituting workers’ compensation

The ILO is responsible for the successful drafting and adoption of several ILO Conventions pertaining to workers’ compensation (ILO 1996a.)

These include the Workmen’s Compensation (Agriculture) Convention, 1921 (No. 12); the Workmen’s Compensation (Accidents) Convention, 1925 (No. 17); the Workmen’s Compensation (Occupational Diseases) Convention, 1925 (No. 18); the Sickness Insurance (Industry) Convention, 1927 (No. 24); the Sickness Insurance (Agriculture) Convention, 1927 (No. 25); the Medical Care and Sickness Benefits Convention, 1969 (No. 130). Generally speaking, workers’ compensation statutes are common among ILO Member States. Such statutes represent an economically-based (rather than human rights-oriented) compromise: providing care and assistance to injured workers and replacing the uncertainties of litigation with a scheduled system of payment that does not examine the issue of fault and places a monetary limit on the recovery afforded to people who have been injured by occupational accidents or occupational disease. (One example in the United States is found in the Virginia Workmens’ Compensation Act Annotated (1982): voluntary acts that are related to requirements of the employment contract are entitled to compensation.) Delay, underreporting, low payments and legal disputes when obtaining coverage for medical care under these separate systems are common. Despite such practical limits upon their effectiveness, the “universality” of these protections in the United States and under international law indicates a societal will to provide monetary disincentives for dangerous work practices, and financial support for injured workers.

Due process and reporting mechanisms within the ILO

Alston views the ILO as an international model for procedural requirements, which, in his opinion, “legitimize the declaration of new norms” (1984). Such features of ILO procedures include: preparation of a preliminary survey of relevant laws among Member States, followed by its Governing Body’s decision whether to place the item on the agenda of the annual International Labour Conference (ILC), followed by a questionnaire from the ILO Secretariat to participating Member States. After the draft has been referred to a technical committee, a draft instrument is circulated to Member States and the appropriate worker and employer representatives; a revised draft instrument is then prepared and submitted to the technical committee, discussed by plenary and drafting committee, and adopted after voting by the ILC. This approach allows for maximum discussion and communication between regulated entities and their governing parties. For a detailed examination of ILO reporting mechanisms see “International Labour Organization” later in this chapter.

These procedures, initiated in 1926 at the inception of the Committee of Experts on the Application of Conventions and Recommendations, have continued vibrancy in the international system. For example, the ILO’s model forms the blueprint in the contemporary Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women: Article 18 sets forth a mandatory reporting mechanism before an international Committee also described within the provisions of the Convention. Mandatory reports regarding activities towards implementation and compliance should be heard by the Committee at the end of the first year following ratification, then at least every four years. Additional reporting procedures for monitoring the application of ILO standards and Conventions include but are not limited to: direct contact missions (for an excellent description of the ILO’s mediation and conciliation role on “direct contact” missions, see Samson 1984); Commissions of Inquiry to investigate particular cases of egregious violations of ILO Conventions and Constitutional provisions; and regularly scheduled periodic oversight through reporting to Conference meetings and reporting to the Governing Body and the Administrative Tribunal. Reporting mechanisms are slow but invaluable; these constitute an important component of a much larger process of mobilizing world opinion towards positive change regarding labour issues. 

Ruda (1994) notes that ILO Conventions 87 (Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organize, 1948) and 98 (Right to Organize and Collective Bargaining, 1949) were written into the Gdansk agreements between the Polish government and the union Solidarity. “Neither the Committee of Experts nor the Conference’s Committee on the Application of Standards may impose sanctions of any kind, though their conclusions are sometimes regarded as political or moral sanctions.” This has been a constant frustration throughout the history of the Committee, even though its ability to influence certain governments under the appropriate circumstances is a point of pride.

World Health Organization

WHO’s Alma-Ata Declaration on Primary Care

In the so-called Alma-Ata Declaration (World Health Organization 1978), coming out of the International Conference on Primary Health Care, held by WHO/UNICEF in Alma-Ata, USSR, from 6 to 12 September 1978. WHO launched an international campaign widely known as “Health For All 2000” which reflects a concerted international effort to improve the quality of health and the rendering of health services, especially primary care but also including occupational safety and health, throughout the world. Even though occupational safety and health does not appear within the plain language of the Declaration it has been included in strategic programming, such that realization of basic health protections has also been fostered by disseminating information and developing programme strategies with the goal of achieving “Health for All 2000” under the auspices of the Declaration.

Consistent with the letter and the spirit of the WHO Constitution discussed above, the Alma-Ata Declaration calls for “urgent action by all governments, all health and development workers, and the world community to protect and promote the health of all people of the world”. Notably, Article 1 clearly reaffirms that “health ... is a fundamental human right and that the attainment of the highest possible level of health is a most important worldwide social goal. ... ” Article 3 says, “The promotion and protection of the health of the people is essential to sustained economic development and contributes to a better quality of life and to world peace.” In addition, the conference laid the groundwork for concrete programmatic strategies, to achieve these goals. Implications for occupational safety and health derived from the Alma-Ata implementation include the development of occupational health facilities as a part of both regional and international strategies. The Pan-American Health Organization (PAHO) provides one example of regional activities that follow WHO’s Plan of Action, “Health for All 2000: Strategies” (Pan-American Health Organization 1990) where occupational safety and health concerns are included in the development of training institutes and the development of health programmes.

WHO’s Beijing Declaration on Occupational Health For All, 1994

In October, 1994, the Second Meeting of the WHO Collaborating Centres in Occupational Health convened and signed the Declaration on Occupational Health For All. The Beijing Declaration is clearly rooted in the heritage of the WHO Alma-Ata Declaration on Primary Care, as well as many ILO instruments pertaining to occupational safety and health. Noting that 100 million workers are injured and 200,000 die each year in occupational accidents, and that 68 to 157 million new cases of occupational disease are attributed to hazardous exposures or workloads, the Beijing Declaration calls for “new strategies and programmes for occupational health throughout the world” and further asserts that occupational health programmes “are not a burden but have a positive and productive impact on the company and the national economy”, therefore linked to notions of sustainable development. The Declaration also calls for the development of infrastructure, including occupational health services with medical surveillance and health promotion, as well as for stronger linkage between occupational health programmes, other health activities, and the programmes and activities sponsored by the WHO.

ILO/WHO Joint Safety and Health Committee

WHO cooperates with the ILO under the auspices of the Joint ILO/WHO Committee on Occupational Health founded in 1946. One early project was the International Anti-Venereal Disease Commission of the Rhine, and in the 1950s, requests from Egypt and Iran were met by ILO and WHO expert consultants who provided technical assistance for comprehensive occupational health surveys.

The Committee has defined occupational safety and health as follows: “the promotion and maintenance of the highest degree of physical, mental and social well-being of all workers in all occupations; the prevention among workers of departures from health caused by their working conditions; the protection of workers in their employment from risks resulting from factors adverse to health; the placing and maintenance of the worker in an occupational environment adapted to his physiological and psychological equipment and, to summarize, the adaptation of work to man and of each man to his job”.

Summary of Law and Theory Regarding Human Rights to Health Protection in the Workplace

Since there are no expressly articulated mechanisms for enforcing occupational safety and health rights, it could be argued that there is no established jurisprudence of the right to protection for human life or health in the workplace except through unusual interpretations of leading human rights instruments, which are strained at best. For example, Article 3 of the United Nations’ UDHR expressly mentions the need to protect the right to life, liberty and security of the person without making reference to the environmental or workplace context in which such protections can or should prevail.

Additionally, the absence of criminal sanctions or penalties for human rights violations in general (other than gross violations of human rights, such as slavery, genocide, war crimes, apartheid) or any standard requiring international penalties for violations of personal security caused by occupational safety and health hazards, calls for the exploration of alternatives to traditional law enforcement if occupational safety and health protections are to be realized. 

As described above, many international human rights instruments express the concept that occupational safety and health is a fundamental human right, especially insofar as individual human rights to life, well-being and security of the person are concerned. The assurance of these rights is also codified in a cluster of international instruments that do not traditionally fall within the rubric of human rights. Taken together, one can conclude that the human right to healthy workplaces is therefore an accepted norm of international law. At the same time, however, domestic laws of Member States share the same dilemma as is found in the international system: fragile protections of overall working conditions in general, and protections of workplace health in particular, raise complex issues that arise from the tension between prevention strategies, which target broad segments of a given population to reduce the spread of disease or the effects of specific dangers on the one hand, balanced against the popular sentiment that resists the temporary abrogation of certain individual rights to travel, engage in certain activities, or engage in commerce in order to protect the individual right to occupational health protections. It therefore remains unclear to what extent that cluster of rights to occupational safety and health may be enforceable on an international or state-by-state basis to provide practical amelioration of working conditions experienced by individuals. Can the promise of protection for these human rights be met within the context of new workplaces and the codified rules of the international system?

Codification of the jurisprudential notion of occupational safety and health protections therefore is found within the rubric of human rights. Monitoring and implementing these articulated protections, therefore, constitutes the first phase of the next century’s human rights concerns. Mindful of these questions, new approaches that can be employed to solve these problems are discussed below.

Overview of Implementation and Compliance Issues in the International System

Ever since the UN Charter was adopted, sceptics have questioned the viability of enforcing international public law, especially in areas concerning the prevention of gross violations of human rights. Preventing such harms under the international system is at least a two-part process, requiring (1) codification of principles, followed by (2) meaningful steps towards implementation and compliance. Typically, such theories assume a context of an organized society with traditional types of legal institutions and enforcement procedures to provide punishment, and deterrence for “bad actors” who refuse to comply with the system’s articulated goals and shared values. Achieving implementation and compliance for human rights in general, and for healthy workplaces in particular, is problematic and complex. Fifty years after the UN Charter was written, there exists a viable international system that works with some level of efficiency to codify norms into written standards; the development of compliance mechanisms for implementation, however, remains uncharted. Therefore the emerging vital questions must be explored: What are the alternative models which do not rely on coercion for enforcement in order to implement the maximum occupational safety and health protection? How can new, extra-legal incentives to compliance with international human rights protections for occupational safety and health be created?

Inherent limits upon the effectiveness of the international system impede the implementation of any set of principles or norms for occupational safety and health protection, so long as the international system remains without some underlying enforcement or positive incentive for compliance. The application of quantifiable measures is not the case in international occupational safety and health practice, however, using ILO Convention 162 Concerning Safety in the Use of Asbestos, 1986 as an example. Under Convention 162, Article 11.1 specifically bans the use of crocidolite. But Article 11.2 reverses this approach; there is no formalized enforcement mechanism for inspection leading to abatement of hazards or for imposing penalties, beyond the limited oversight provided by institutions for reporting. In addition, the actual standard for exposure limits to asbestos is not articulated in Convention 162.

Instead, Convention 162 leaves the appropriate standards to the competent authority in a given nation. Consequently, the very nature of reporting without enforcement or positive incentives for compliance by nations or employer-entities generates practical constraints on the implementation of human rights principles and laws (Henkin 1990). As Henkin notes, “International law is constantly apologizing for itself ... to justify its very existence” because it has no government and no institutions of governance.

Even though the international system has a recognized ability to limit aggression between states, as evinced by diplomatic relations and other areas of compliance, there are few instances where the international system can enforce sanctions or penalties against so-called bad actors, as are commonly enforced under domestic laws. For this reason, the sound of frustrated pleas for the implementation of international human rights protections have echoed through the corridors of the United Nations and at international conferences involving NGOs. Without a schedule of enforcement —sanctions or fines or penalties—to generate punishment and deterrence, there is an immediate need to develop effective mechanisms for implementation and compliance with international human rights protections of occupational safety and health. Such approaches to “interactive” compliance are therefore ideally suited to fill this void, when this approach is taken in tandem with practical strategies for applying such positive incentives to improve working conditions throughout the international system (Feitshans 1993). Therefore, there is a clear demand for compliance mechanisms that will take the weak and undervalued reporting system to, in the words of K.T. Samson (former Chief, Application of Standards Branch of the International Labour Office), “a dimension beyond dialogue”.

Now that the international system has outgrown the need for codification of universal human rights norms as the primary focus for international activity, many have suggested that the time has come to turn international attention towards implementation and compliance with those norms. Leading commentary (Sigler and Murphy 1988), for example, has an unclearly articulated but important working assumption that competition between entities—be they employer corporations or UN Member States—can be used as a tool to achieve effective occupational safety and health protections, if that competition is fuelled by positive incentives instead of the traditional punishment and deterrence model. “We are moving more toward getting organizations to control and police themselves,” says Joseph Murphy, a lawyer and co-editor of Corporate Conduct Quarterly, a newsletter on compliance and ethics.


The first half-century of UN activity brought codification of international human rights norms regarding the right to a healthy workplace in several key international human rights instruments. These international instruments have implicitly limited effectiveness, however, because other than administrative monitoring, they lack enforcement and deterrence mechanisms to ensure their implementation. There has been marked frustration with these limitations upon the effectiveness of the international system, despite an impressive accumulation of international documents and reports before many UN organs, because these efforts offer little oversight or monitoring beyond reporting. The treaties and conventions discussed in this paper enforcing or protecting health rights, share in this frustration, despite important strides that have been achieved through diligent use of reporting mechanisms.

The important concepts found in international human rights instruments are based upon the philosophy that work-related illnesses are an avoidable aspect of industrialization and also reflect a poorly articulated international consensus that people should not be killed or seriously injured for their work. Designed to protect the human right to safety in the workplace, such instruments and their underlying principles are not standards for perfection. These instruments express international human rights to occupational safety and health but should not, therefore, be viewed as the maximum level to ensure an improved quality of life for people who work; nor should they be viewed as the maximum achievable level from the perspective of improvements that can be fostered through competition for positive incentives. Rather, these standards are intended to serve as “minimum” levels of international human rights protection in the workplace, ameliorating the quality of life for all people who work.


Simon Pickvance

The role of community groups and the voluntary sector in occupational health and safety has grown rapidly during the past twenty years. Hundreds of groups spread across at least 30 nations act as advocates for workers and sufferers from occupational diseases, concentrating on those whose needs are not met within workplace, trade union or state structures. Health and safety at work forms part of the brief of many more organizations which fight for workers’ rights, or on broader health or gender-based issues.

Sometimes the life-span of these organizations is short because, in part as a result of their work, the needs to which they respond become recognized by more formal organizations. However, many community and voluntary sector organizations have now been in existence for 10 or 20 years, altering their priorities and methods in response to changes in the world of work and the needs of their constituency.

Such organizations are not new. An early example was the Health Care Association of the Berlin Workers Union, an organization of doctors and workers which provided medical care for 10,000 Berlin workers in the mid-nineteenth century. Before the rise of industrial trade unions in the nineteenth century, many informal organizations fought for a shorter working week and the rights of young workers. The lack of compensation for certain occupational diseases formed the basis for organizations of workers and their relatives in the United States in the mid-1960s.

However, the recent growth of community and voluntary sector groups can be traced to the political changes of the late 1960s and 1970s. Increasing conflict between workers and employers focused on working conditions as well as pay.

New legislation on health and safety in the industrialized countries arose from an increased concern with health and safety at work amongst workers and trade unions, and these laws in turn led to further increases in public awareness. While the opportunities offered by this legislation have seen health and safety become an area for direct negotiation between employers, trade unions and government in most countries, workers and others suffering from occupational disease and injury have frequently chosen to exert pressure from outside these tripartite discussions, believing that there should be no negotiation over fundamental human rights to health and safety at work.

Many of the voluntary sector groups formed since that time have also taken advantage of cultural changes in the role of science in society: an increasing awareness amongst scientists of the need for science to meet the needs of workers and communities, and an increase in the scientific skills of workers. Several organizations recognize this alliance of interest in their title: the Academics and Workers Action (AAA) in Denmark, or the Society for Participatory Research in Asia, based in India.

Strengths and Weaknesses

The voluntary sector identifies as its strengths an immediacy of response to emerging problems in occupational health and safety, open organizational structures, the inclusion of marginalized workers and sufferers from occupational disease and injury, and a freedom from institutional constraints on action and utterance. The problems of the voluntary sector are uncertain income, difficulties in marrying the styles of voluntary and paid staff, and difficulties in coping with the overwhelming unmet needs of workers and sufferers from occupational ill-health.

The transient character of many of these organizations has already been mentioned. Of 16 such organizations known in the UK in 1985, only seven were still in existence in 1995. In the meantime, 25 more had come into existence. This is characteristic of voluntary organizations of all kinds. Internally they are frequently non-hierarchically organized, with delegates or affiliates from trade unions and other organizations as well as others suffering from work-related health problems. While links with trade unions, political parties and governmental bodies are essential to their effectiveness in improving conditions at work, most have chosen to keep such relationships indirect, and to be funded from several sources—typically, a mixture of statutory, labour movement, commercial or charitable sources. Many more organizations are entirely voluntary or produce a publication from subscriptions which cover printing and distribution costs only.


The activities of these voluntary sector bodies can be broadly categorized as based on single hazards (illnesses, multinational companies, employment sectors, ethnic groups or gender); advice centres; occupational health services; newsletter and magazine production; research and educational bodies; and supranational networks.

Some of the longest-established bodies fight for the interests of sufferers from occupational diseases, as shown in the following list, which summarizes the principal concerns of community groups around the world: multiple chemical sensitivity, white lung, black lung, brown lung, Karoshi (sudden death through overwork), repetitive strain injury, accident victims, electrical sensitivity, women’s occupational health, Black and ethnic minority occupational health, white lung (asbestos), pesticides, artificial mineral fibres, microwaves, visual display units, art hazards, construction work, Bayer, Union Carbide, Rio Tinto Zinc.

Concentration of efforts in this way can be particularly effective; the publications of the Center for Art Hazards in New York City were models of their kind, and projects drawing attention to the special needs of migrant minority ethnic workers have had successes in the United Kingdom, the United States, Japan and elsewhere.

A dozen organizations around the world fight for the particular health problems of ethnic minority workers: Latino workers in the United States; Pakistani, Bengali and Yemeni workers in England; Moroccan and Algerian workers in France; and South-East Asian workers in Japan among others. Because of the severity of the injuries and illnesses suffered by these workers, adequate compensation, which often means recognition of their legal status, is a first demand. But an end to the practice of double standards in which ethnic minority workers are employed in conditions which majority groups will not tolerate is the main issue. A great deal has been achieved by these groups, in part through securing better provision of information in minority languages on health and safety and employment rights.

The work of the Pesticides Action Network and its sister organizations, especially the campaign to get certain pesticides banned (the Dirty Dozen Campaign) has been notably successful. Each of these problems and the systematic abuse of the working and external environments by certain multinational companies are intractable problems, and the organizations dedicated to resolving them have in many cases won partial victories but have set themselves new goals.

Advice Centres

The complexity of the world of work, the weakness of trade unions in some countries, and the inadequacy of statutory provision of health and safety advice at work, have resulted in the setting up of advice centres in many countries. The most highly developed networks in English-speaking countries deal with tens of thousands of enquiries each year. They are largely reactive, responding to needs as reflected by those who contact them. Recognized changes in the structure of advanced economies, towards a reduction in the size of workplaces, casualization, and an increase in informal and part-time work (each of which creates problems for the regulation of working conditions) have enabled advice centres to obtain funding from state or local government sources.

The European Work Hazards Network, a network of workers and workers’ health and safety advisers, has recently received European Union funding. The South African advice centres network received EU development funding, and community-based COSH groups in the United States at one time received funds through the New Directions programme of the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

Occupational Health Services

Some of the clearest successes of the voluntary sector have been in improving the standard of occupational health service provision. Organizations of medically and technically trained staff and workers have demonstrated the need for such provision and pioneered novel methods of delivering occupational health care. The sectoral occupational health services which have been brought into existence progressively over the last 15 years in Denmark received powerful advocacy from the AAA particularly for the role of workers’ representatives in management of the services. The development of primary-care-based services in the UK and of specific services for sufferers from work-related upper limb disorders in response to the experience of workers’ health centres in Australia are further examples.


Changes within science during the 1960s and 1970s have lead to experimentation with new methods of investigation described as action research, participatory research or lay epidemiology. The definition of research needs by workers and their trade unions has created an opportunity for a number of centres specializing in carrying out research for them; the network of Science Shops in the Netherlands, DIESAT, the Brazilian trade union health and safety resource centre, SPRIA (the Society for Participatory Research in Asia) in India, and the network of centres in the Republic of South Africa are amongst the longest established. Research carried out by these bodies acts as a route by which workers’ perceptions of hazards and their health become recognized by mainstream occupational medicine.


Many voluntary sector groups produce periodicals, the largest of which sell thousands of copies, appear up to 20 times a year and are read widely within statutory, regulatory and trade union bodies as well as by their target audience amongst workers. These are effective networking tools within countries (Hazards bulletin in the United Kingdom; Arbeit und Ökologie (Work and the Environment) in Germany). The priorities for action promoted by these periodicals may initially reflect cultural differences from other organizations, but frequently become the priorities of trades unions and political parties; the advocacy of stiffer penalties for breaking health and safety law and for causing injury to, or the death of, workers are recurrent themes.

International Networks

The rapid globalization of the economy has been reflected in trade unions through the increasing importance of the international trade secretariats, area-based trade union affiliations like the Organization of African Trade Union Unity (OATUU), and meetings of workers employed in particular sectors. These new bodies frequently take up health and safety concerns, the African Charter on Occupational Health and Safety produced by OATUU being a good example. In the voluntary sector international links have been formalized by groups which concentrate on the activities of particular multinational companies (contrasting the safety practices and health and safety record of constituent businesses in different parts of the world, or the health and safety record in particular industries, such as cocoa production or tyre manufacture), and by networks across the major free trade areas: NAFTA, EU, MERCOSUR and East Asia. All these international networks call for the harmonization of standards of worker protection, the recognition of, and compensation for, occupational disease and injury, and worker participation in health and safety structures at work. Upward harmonization, to the best extant standard, is a consistent demand.

Many of these international networks have grown up in a different political culture from the organizations of the 1970s, and see direct links between the working environment and the environment outside the workplace. They call for higher standards of environmental protection and make alliances between workers in companies and those who are affected by the companies’ activities; consumers, indigenous people in the vicinity of mining operations, and other residents. The international outcry following the Bhopal disaster has been channelled through the Permanent People’s Tribunal on Industrial Hazards and Human Rights, which has made a series of demands for the regulation of the activities of international business.

The effectiveness of voluntary sector organizations can be assessed in different ways: in terms of their services to individuals and groups of workers, or in terms of their effectiveness in bringing about changes in working practice and the law. Policy making is an inclusive process, and policy proposals rarely originate from one individual or organization. However, the voluntary sector has been able to reiterate demands which were at first unthinkable until they have become acceptable.

Some recurrent demands of voluntary and community groups include:

·     a code of ethics for multinational companies

·     higher penalties for corporate manslaughter

·     workers’ participation in occupational health services

·     recognition of additional industrial diseases (e.g., for the purpose of compensation awards)

·     bans on the use of pesticides, asbestos, artificial mineral fibres, epoxy resins and solvents.

The voluntary sector in occupational health and safety exists because of the high cost of providing a healthy working environment and appropriate services and compensation for the victims of poor working conditions. Even the most extensive systems of provision, like those in Scandinavia, leave gaps which the voluntary sector attempts to fill. The increasing pressure for deregulation of health and safety in the long-industrialized countries in response to competitive pressures from transitional economies has created a new campaign theme: the maintenance of high standards and upward harmonization of standards in different nations’ legislation.

While they can be seen as performing an essential role in the process of initiating legislation and regulation, they are necessarily impatient about the speed with which their demands are accepted. They will continue to grow in importance wherever workers find that state provisions fall short of what is needed.


Carolyn Needleman

In the context of occupational health and safety, “right to know” refers generally to laws, rules and regulations requiring that workers be informed about health hazards related to their employment. Under right-to-know mandates, workers who handle a potentially harmful chemical substance in the course of their job duties cannot be left unaware of the risk. Their employer is legally obligated to tell them exactly what the substance is chemically, and what kind of health damage it can cause. In some cases, the warning must also include advice on how to avoid exposure and must state the recommended treatment in case exposure does occur. This policy contrasts sharply with the situation it was meant to replace, unfortunately still prevailing in many workplaces, in which workers knew the chemicals they used only by trade names or generic names such as “Cleaner Number Nine” and had no way to judge whether their health was being endangered.

Under right-to-know mandates, hazard information is usually conveyed through warning labels on workplace containers and equipment, supplemented by worker health and safety training. In the United States, the major vehicle for worker right to know is the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s Hazard Communication Standard, finalized in 1986. This federal regulatory standard requires labelling of hazardous chemicals in all private-sector workplaces. Employers must also provide workers access to a detailed Materials Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) on each labelled chemical, and provide worker training in safe chemical handling. Figure 23.1  shows a typical US right-to-know warning label.

Figure 23.1 Right-to-know chemical warning label

It should be noted that as a policy direction, the provision of hazard information differs greatly from direct regulatory control of the hazard itself. The labelling strategy reflects a philosophical commitment to individual responsibility, informed choice and free market forces. Once armed with knowledge, workers are in theory supposed to act in their own best interests, demanding safe working conditions or finding different work if necessary. Direct regulatory control of occupational hazards, by contrast, assumes a need for more active state interventions to counter the power imbalances in society that prevent some workers from making meaningful use of hazard information on their own. Because labelling implies that the informed workers bear ultimate responsibility for their own occupational safety, right-to-know policies occupy a somewhat ambiguous status politically. On the one hand, they are cheered by labour advocates as a victory enabling workers to protect themselves more effectively. On the other hand, they can threaten workers’ interests if right to know is allowed to replace or weaken other occupational safety and health regulations. As activists are quick to point out, the “right to know” is a starting point that needs to be complemented with the “right to understand” and the “right to act”, as well as with continued effort to control work hazards directly.

Local organizations play a number of important roles in shaping the real-world significance of worker right-to-know laws and regulations. First and foremost, these rights often owe their very existence to public interest groups, many of them community based. For example, “COSH groups” (grass-roots Committees on Occupational Safety and Health) were central participants in the lengthy rule-making and litigation that went into establishing the Hazard Communication Standard in the United States. See “The COSH Movement and Right to Know” for a more detailed description of COSH groups and their activities.

Organizations in the local community also play a second critical role: assisting workers to make more effective use of their legal rights to hazard information. For example, COSH groups advise and assist workers who feel they may suffer retaliation for seeking hazard information; raise consciousness about reading and observing warning labels; and help bring to light employer violations of right-to-know requirements. This help is particularly important to workers who feel intimidated in using their rights due to low education levels, low job security, or lack of a supportive trade union. COSH groups also assist workers in interpreting the information contained on labels and in Material Safety Data Sheets. This kind of support is badly needed for workers with limited literacy. It can also help workers with good reading skills but insufficient technical background to understand the MSDSs, which are often written in scientific language confusing to an untrained reader.

Worker right to know is not only a matter of transmitting factual information; it also has an emotional side. Through right to know, workers may learn for the first time that their jobs are dangerous in ways they had not realized. This disclosure can stir up feelings of betrayal, outrage, dread and helplessness—sometimes with great intensity. Accordingly, a third important role that some community-based organizations play in worker right to know is to provide emotional support for workers struggling to deal with the personal implications of hazard information. Through self-help support groups, workers receive validation, a chance to express their feelings, a sense of collective support, and practical advice. In addition to COSH groups, examples of this kind of self-help organization in the United States include Injured Workers, a national network of support groups that provides a newsletter and locally available support meetings for individuals contemplating or involved in workers’ compensation claims; the National Center for Environmental Health Strategies, an advocacy organization located in New Jersey, serving those at risk of or suffering from multiple chemical sensitivity; and Asbestos Victims of America, a national network centred in San Francisco that offers information, counselling, and advocacy for workers exposed to asbestos.

A special case of right to know involves locating workers known to have been exposed to occupational hazards in the past, and informing them of their elevated health risk. In the United States, this kind of intervention is called “high-risk worker notification”. Numerous state and federal agencies in the United States have developed programmes of worker notification, as have some unions and a number of large corporations. The federal government agency most actively involved with worker notification at present is the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). This agency carried out several ambitious community-based pilot programmes of worker notification in the early 1980s, and now includes worker notification as a routine part of its epidemiological research studies.

NIOSH’s experience with this kind of information provision is instructive. In its pilot programmes, NIOSH undertook to develop accurate lists of workers with probable exposure to hazardous chemicals in a particular plant; to send personal letters to all workers on the list, informing them of the possibility of health risk; and, where indicated and feasible, to provide or encourage medical screening. It immediately became obvious, however, that the notification did not remain a private matter between the agency and each individual worker. On the contrary, at every step the agency found its work affected by community-based organizations and local institutions.

NIOSH’s most controversial notification took place in the early 1980s in Augusta, Georgia, with 1,385 chemical workers who had been exposed to a potent carcinogen  (b-naphthylamine). The workers involved, predominantly African-American males, were unrepresented by a union and lacked resources and formal education. The community’s social climate was, in the words of programme staff, “highly polarized by racial discrimination, poverty, and substantial lack of understanding of toxic hazards”. NIOSH helped establish a local advisory group to encourage community involvement, which quickly took on a life of its own as more militant grass-roots organizations and individual worker advocates joined the effort. Some of the workers sued the company, adding to the controversies already surrounding the programme. Local organizations such as the Chamber of Commerce and the county Medical Society also became involved. Even many years later, echoes can still be heard of the conflicts among local organizations involved in the notification. In the end, the programme did succeed in informing the exposed workers of their life-long risk for bladder cancer, a highly treatable disease if caught early. Over 500 of them were medically screened through the programme, and a number of possibly life-saving medical interventions resulted.

A striking feature of the Augusta notification is the central role played by the news media. Local news coverage of the programme was extremely heavy, including over 50 newspaper articles and a documentary film about the chemical exposures (“Lethal Labour”) shown on local TV. This publicity reached a wide audience and had enormous impact on the notified workers and the community as a whole, leading the NIOSH project director to observe that “in actuality, the news media perform the real notification”. In some situations, it may be useful to regard local journalists as an intrinsic part of right to know and plan a formal role for them in the notification process to encourage more accurate and constructive reporting.

While the examples here are drawn from the United States, the same issues arise worldwide. Worker access to hazard information represents a step forward in basic human rights, and has properly become a focal point of political and service effort for pro-worker community-based organizations in many countries. In nations with weak legal protections for workers and/or weak labour movements, community-based organizations are all the more important in terms of the three roles discussed here—advocating for stronger right-to-know (and right-to-act) laws; assisting workers to use right-to-know information effectively; and providing social and emotional support for those who learn they are at risk from work hazards.


Formed in the wake of the US Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, committees on occupational safety and health initially emerged as local coalitions of public health advocates, concerned professionals, and rank-and-file activists meeting to deal with problems resulting from toxics in the workplace. Early COSH groups started in Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia and New York. In the south, they evolved in conjunction with grass roots organizations such as Carolina Brown Lung, representing textile mill workers suffering from byssinosis. Currently there are 25 COSH groups around the country, at various stages of development and funded through a wide variety of methods. Many COSH groups have made a strategic decision to work with and through organized labour, recognizing that union-empowered workers are the best equipped to fight for safe working conditions.

COSH groups bring together a broad coalition of organizations and individuals from unions, the public health community and environmental interests, including rank-and-file safety and health activists, academics, lawyers, doctors, public health professionals, social workers and so on. They provide a forum in which interest groups that do not normally work together can communicate about workplace safety and health problems. In the COSH, workers have a chance to discuss the safety and health issues they confront on the shop floor with academics and medical experts. Through such discussions, academic and medical research can get translated for use by working people.

COSH groups have been highly active politically, both through traditional means (such as lobbying campaigns) and through more colorful methods (such as picketing and carrying coffins past the homes of anti-labour elected officials). COSH groups played a key role in the struggles for local and state right-to-know legislation, building broad-based coalitions of union, environmental and public interest organizations to support this cause. For example, the Philadelphia area COSH group (PHILAPOSH) ran a campaign which resulted in the first city right-to-know law passed in the country. The campaign climaxed when PHILAPOSH members dramatized the need for hazard information by opening an unmarked pressurized canister at a public hearing, sending members of the City Council literally diving under tables as the gas (oxygen) escaped.

Local right-to-know campaigns eventually yielded more than 23 local and state right-to-know laws. The diversity of requirements was so great that chemical corporations ultimately demanded a national standard, so they would not have to comply with so many differing local regulations. What happened with COSH groups and right to know is an excellent example of how the efforts of labour and community coalitions working at the local level can combine to have a powerful national impact on occupational safety and health policy.

Joel Shufro


Frank B. Wright

The European Union (EU) today exercises a major influence on worldwide health and safety law and policy. In 1995, the Union comprised the following Member States: Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Sweden and the United Kingdom. It will probably expand in years to come.

The forerunner of the Union, the European Community, was created in the 1950s by three treaties: The European Coal and Steel Community Treaty (ECSC) signed in Paris in 1951, and the European Economic Community (EEC) and European Atomic Energy Community (EAEC) Treaties signed in Rome in 1957. The European Union was formed with the entry into force of the Maastricht Treaty (concluded in 1989) on 1 January 1992.

The Community has four institutions, namely, the Commission, the Council, the Parliament and the European Court of Justice. They derive their powers from the treaties.

The Structures

The Commission

The Commission is the Community’s executive body. It is responsible for initiating, proposing and implementing Community policy, and if a Member State fails to fulfil its obligations under the treaties, the Commission can take proceedings against that Member State in the European Court of Justice.

It is composed of seventeen members appointed by the governments of Member States for a renewable four-year period. Each Commissioner is responsible for a portfolio and has authority over one or more Directorates General. One such Directorate General, DG V, is concerned with Employment, Industrial Relations and Social Affairs, and it is from within this Directorate General (DG V/F) that health and safety and public health policies are both initiated and proposed. The Commission is assisted in its health and safety law and policy-making role by the Advisory Committee on Safety, Hygiene and Health Protection at Work and the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions.

Advisory Committee on Safety, Hygiene and Health Protection at Work

The Advisory Committee was established in 1974 and is chaired by the Commissioner responsible for the Directorate-General for Employment, Industrial Relations and Social Affairs. It consists of 96 full members: two representatives each of government, trade unions, and employers’ organizations from each Member State.

The role of the Advisory Committee is to “assist the Commission in the preparation and implementation of activities in the fields of safety, hygiene and health protection at work”. Because of its constitution and membership, the Advisory Committee is much more important and pro-active than its title suggests, so that, over the years, it has had a significant influence on strategic policy development, acting alongside the European Parliament and the Economic and Social Committee. More specifically, the Committee is responsible for the following matters within its general frame of reference:

·     conducting exchanges of views and experience regarding existing or planned regulations

·     contributing towards the development of a common approach to problems existing in the fields of safety, hygiene and health protection at work and towards the choice of Community priorities as well as measures necessary for implementing them

·     drawing the Commission’s attention to areas in which there is an apparent need for the acquisition of new knowledge and for the implementation of appropriate educational and research projects

·     defining, within the framework of Community action programmes, and in cooperation with the Mines Safety and Health Commission, (i) the criteria and aims of the campaign against the risk of accidents at work and health hazards within the undertaking; and (ii) methods enabling undertakings and their employees to evaluate and to improve the level of protection

·     contributing towards keeping national administrations, trade unions and employers’ organizations informed of Community measures in order to facilitate their cooperation and to encourage initiatives promoted by them aiming at exchanges of experience and at laying down codes of practice

·     submitting opinions on proposals for directives and on all measures proposed by the Commission which are of relevance to health and safety at work.

In addition to these functions, the Committee prepares an annual report, which the Commission then forwards to the Council, the Parliament and the Economic and Social Committee.

The Dublin Foundation

The European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions, located in Dublin, was established in 1975 as a specialized, autonomous Community body. The Foundation is primarily engaged in applied research in the areas of social policy, the application of new technologies, and the improvement and protection of the environment, in an effort to identify, cope with and forestall problems in the working environment.

European Agency for Health and Safety at the Workplace

The European Council has recently established the European Agency for Health and Safety at the Workplace in Bilbao, Spain, which is responsible for collating and disseminating information in its sector of activities. It will also organize training courses, supply technical and scientific support to the Commission and forge close links with specialized national bodies. The agency will also organize a network system with a view to exchanging information and experiences between Member States.

The European Parliament

The European Parliament exercises an increasingly important consultative role during the Community’s legislative process, controls a part of the Community’s budget jointly with the Council, approves Community Association agreements with non-member countries and treaties for the accession of new Member States, and is the Community’s supervisory body.

The Economic and Social Committee

The Economic and Social Committee is an advisory and consultative body which is required to give its opinion on a range of social and vocational issues, including health and safety at work. The Committee draws its membership from three main groups: employers, workers and an independant group comprising members with a wide spectrum of interests including professional, business, farming, the cooperative movement and consumer affairs.

Legal Instruments

There are four main instruments available to the Community legislator. Article 189 of the EEC Treaty as amended provides that “In order to carry out their task and in accordance with the provisions of this Treaty, the European Parliament acting jointly with the Council and the Commission shall make regulations and issue directives, take decisions, make recommendations or deliver opinions.”


It is stated that “A regulation shall have general application. It shall be binding in its entirety and directly applicable in all Member States.” Regulations are directly enforceable in Member States. There is no need for further implementation. Indeed, it is not permissible for legislatures to consider them with a view to that end. In the field of health and safety at work, regulations are rare and those that have been made are administrative in nature.

Directives and decisions

It is stated that “A directive shall be binding, as to the result to be achieved, upon each Member State to which it is addressed, but shall leave to the national authorities the choice of form and methods.” Directives are instructions to Member States to enact laws to achieve an end result. In practice, directives are used mainly to bring about the harmonization or approximation of national laws in accordance with Article 100. They are therefore the most appropriate and commonly used instruments for occupational health and safety matters. In relation to decisions, it is stated that “A decision shall be binding in its entirety upon those to whom it is addressed.”

Recommendations and opinions

Recommendations and opinions have no binding force but are indicative of policy stances.


The European Communities made a decision in the mid-1980s to press ahead strongly with harmonization measures in the field of health and safety. Various reasons have been put forward to explain the developing importance of this area, of which four may be considered to be significant.

First, it is said that common health and safety standards assist economic integration, since products cannot circulate freely within the Community if prices for similar items differ in various Member States because of variable health and safety costs imposed on business. Second, 10 million people a year are the victims of, and 8,000 people a year die from, workplace accidents (out of a workforce which numbered 138 million people in 1994). These grim statistics give rise to an estimated bill of ECU 26,000 million paid in compensation for occupational accidents and diseases annually, whilst in Britain alone the National Audit Office in their Report Enforcing Health and Safety in the Workplace estimated that the cost of accidents to industry and the taxpayer is £10 billion per year. It is argued that a reduction of the human, social and economic costs of accidents and ill-health borne by this workforce will not only bring about a huge financial saving but will also bring about a significant increase in the quality of life for the whole Community. Third, the introduction of more efficient work practices is said to bring with it increased productivity, lower operational costs and better industrial relations.

Finally, it is argued that the regulation of certain risks, such as those arising from massive explosions, should be harmonized at a supranational level because of the scale of resource costs and (an echo of the first reason canvassed above) because any disparity in the substance and application of such provisions produces distortions of competition and affects product prices.

Much impetus was given to this programme by the campaign organized by the Commission in collaboration with the twelve Member States in the European Year of Health and Safety, which took place during the 12-month period commencing 1 March 1992. This campaign sought to reach the whole of the Community’s working population, particularly targeting high-risk industries and small and medium-sized enterprises.

Each of the founding treaties laid the basis for new health and safety laws. The EEC Treaty, for example, contains two provisions which are, in part at least, devoted to the promotion of health and safety, namely articles 117 and 118.

Community Charter of the Fundamental Social Rights of Workers

To meet the challenge, a comprehensive programme of measures was proposed by the Commission in 1987 and adopted by the Council in the following year. This programme contained a series of health and safety measures grouped under the headings of safety and ergonomics, health and hygiene, information and training, initiatives concerning small and medium enterprises, and social dialogue. Added impetus to these policies was provided by the Community Charter of the Fundamental Social Rights of Workers, adopted in Strasbourg in December 1989 by 11 of the 12 Member States (the United Kingdom abstained).

The Social Charter, as agreed in December 1989, covers 12 categories of “fundamental social rights” among them are several of practical relevance here:

·     Improvement of living and working conditions. There should be improvement in working conditions, particularly in terms of limits on working time. Particular mention is made of the need for improved conditions for workers on part-time or seasonal contracts and so on.

·     Social protection. Workers, including the unemployed, should receive adequate social protection and social security benefits.

·     Information, consultation and participation for workers. This should apply especially in multinational companies and in particular at times of restructuring, redundancies or the introduction of new technology.

·     Health protection and safety at the workplace.

·     Protection of children and adolescents. The minimum employment age should be no lower than the minimum school-leaving age, and in any case not lower than 15 years. The hours which those aged under 18 can work should be limited, and they should not generally work at night.

·     Elderly persons. Workers should be assured of resources providing a decent standard of living upon retirement. Others should have sufficient resources and appropriate medical and social assistance.

·     Disabled people. All disabled people should have additional help towards social and professional integration.

Member States are given responsibility in accordance with national practices for guaranteeing the rights in the Charter and implementing the necessary measures, and the Commission is asked to submit proposals on areas within its competence.

Since 1989, it has become clear that within the Community as a whole there is much support for the Social Charter. Undoubtedly, Member States are anxious to show that workers, children and older workers should benefit from the Community as well as shareholders and managers.

The 1989 Framework Directive

The principles in the Commission’s health and safety programme were set out in another “Framework Directive” (89/391/EEC) on the introduction of measures to encourage improvements in the safety and health of workers at work. This makes a significant step forward from the approach witnessed in the earlier “Framework Directive” of 1980. In particular, the 1989 Directive, while endorsing and adopting the approach of “self-assessment”, also sought to establish a variety of basic duties, especially for the employer. Furthermore, the promotion of “social dialogue” in the field of health and safety at work was explicitly incorporated into detailed provisions in the 1989 Directive, introducing significant requirements for information, consultation and participation for workers and their representatives at the workplace. This 1989 Directive required compliance by 31 December 1992.

The Directive contains re-stated general principles concerning, in particular, the prevention of occupational risks, the protection of safety and health and the informing, consultation and training of workers and their representatives, as well as principles concerning the implementation of such measures. This measure constituted a first attempt to provide an overall complement to the technical harmonization directives designed to complete the internal market. The 1989 Directive also brought within its scope the provisions of the 1980 Framework Directive on risks arising from use at work of chemical, physical and biological agents. It parallels the ILO Convention concerning Occupational Safety and Health, 1981 (No. 155) and its accompanying Recommendation (No. 161).

The overall objectives of the 1989 Directive may be summarized as being:

·     humanization of the working environment

·     accident prevention and health protection at the workplace

·     to encourage information, dialogue and balanced participation on safety and health by means of procedures and instruments

·     to promote throughout the Community, the harmonious development of economic activities, a continuous and balanced expansion and an accelerated rise in the standard of living

·     to encourage the increasing participation of management and labour in decisions and initiatives

·     to establish the same level of health protection for workers in all undertakings, including small and medium-sized enterprises, and to fulfil the single market requirements of the Single European Act 1986; and

·     the gradual replacement of national legislation by Community legislation.

General duties placed upon the employer include duties of awareness, duties to take direct action to ensure safety and health, duties of strategic planning to avoid risks to safety and health, duties to train and direct the workforce, duties to inform, consult and involve the workforce, and duties of recording and notification.

The Directive provided similar safeguards for small and medium-sized enterprises. It is stated, for example, that the size of the undertaking and/or establishment is a relevant matter in relation to determining the sufficiency of resources for dealing with the organization of protective and preventive measures. It is also a factor to be considered in relation to obligations concerning first aid, fire fighting and evacuation of workers. Furthermore, the Directive included a power for differential requirements to be imposed upon varying sizes of undertakings as regards documentation to be provided. Finally, in relation to the provision of information, it is stated that national measures “may take account, inter alia, of the size of the undertaking and/or establishment”.

Under the umbrella of the 1989 Directive, a number of individual directives have also been adopted. In particular, “daughter” directives have been adopted on minimum safety and health requirements for the workplace, for the use of work equipment, for the use of personal protective equipment, for the manual handling of loads, and for work with display screen equipment.

The following Directives have also been adopted:

·     Council Directive of 20 December 1993 concerning the minimum safety and health requirements for work on board fishing vessels (93/103/EEC)

·     Council Directive of 12 October 1993 amending Directive 90/679/EEC on the protection of workers from risks related to exposure to biological agents at work (93/88/EEC)

·     Council Directive of 3 December 1992 on the minimum requirements for improving the safety and health protection of workers in surface and underground mineral-extracting industries (92/104/EEC)

·     Council Directive of 3 November 1992 on the minimum requirements for improving the safety and health protection of workers in mineral-extracting industries that involve drilling (92/91/EEC)

·     Council Directive of 19 October 1992 on the introduction of measures to encourage improvements in the safety and health at work of pregnant workers and workers who have recently given birth or who are breast-feeding (92/85/EEC)

·     Council Directive of 24 June 1992 on the minimum requirements for the provision of safety and/or health signs at work (92/58/EEC)

·     Council Directive of 24 June 1992 on the implementation of minimum safety and health requirements at temporary or mobile construction sites (92/57/EEC)

·     Council Directive of 31 March 1992 on the minimum safety and health requirements for improved medical treatment on board vessels (92/29/EEC)

·     Council Directive of 23 April 1990 on the contained use of genetically modified micro-organisms. (90/219/ EEC)

Since the passage of the Maastricht Treaty, further measures have been passed, namely: a Recommendation on a European schedule of industrial diseases; a directive on asbestos; a directive on safety and health signs at the workplace; a directive on medical assistance on board vessels; directives on health and safety protection in the extractive industries; and a directive introducing measures to promote improvements in the travel conditions of workers with motor disabilities.

The Single Market

The original Article 100 has been replaced by a new provision in the Treaty of European Union. The new Article 100 ensures that the European Parliament and the Economic and Social Committee must be consulted in all cases and not simply when the implementation of a directive would involve the amendment of legislation in one or more Member States.


Su Zhi

The occupational safety and health of workers has been an important aspect of legislation laid down in the form of the Labour Law promulgated in July 1994. To urge enterprises into the market system, and in the meantime to protect the rights of labourers, in-depth reforms in the system of labour contracts and wage distribution and in social security have been major priorities in the government agenda. Establishing a uniform welfare umbrella for all workers regardless of the ownership of the enterprises is one of the goals, which also include unemployment coverage, retirement pension systems, and occupational disease and injuries compensation insurance. The Labour Law requires that all employers pay a social security contribution for their workers. Part of the legislation, the draft of the Occupational Disease Prevention and Control Law, will be an area of the Labour Law to which major attention has been devoted in order to regulate the behaviour and define the responsibilities of employers in controlling occupational hazards, while at the same time giving more rights to workers in protecting their own health.

Cooperation Between Governmental Agencies and the All-China Federation of Trade Unions in Policy Making and Legislation Enforcement

The Ministry of Public Health (MOPH), the Ministry of Labour (MOL), and the All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) have a long history of cooperation. Many important policies and activities have resulted from their joint efforts.

The current division of responsibility between the MOPH and the MOL in occupational safety and health is as follows:

·     From the preventive medical point of view, the MOPH oversees industrial hygiene and occupational health, enforcing national health inspection.

·     The focus of the MOL is on engineering the control of occupational hazards and on the organization of labour, as well as overseeing occupational safety and health and enforcing national labour inspection (figure 23.2) (MOPH and MOL 1986).

Figure 23.2 Governmental organization and division of responsibility for occupational health and safety

It is difficult to draw a line between the responsibilities of the MOPH and the MOL. It is expected that further cooperation will focus on enhancing enforcement of occupational safety and health regulations.

The ACFTU has been increasingly involved in safeguarding workers’ rights. One of the important tasks of the ACFTU is to promote the establishment of trade unions in foreign-funded enterprises. Only 12% of overseas-funded enterprises have established unions.


Nikolai F. Izmerov

Comparison of the Philosophical Bases of Maximum Allowable Concentrations (MACs) and Threshold Limit Values (TLVs)

Rapid development of chemistry and wide usage of chemical products require specific toxicological studies and hazards evaluation with regard to long-term and combined effects of chemical substances. The setting of standards for chemicals in the working environment is being conducted by occupational hygienists in many countries of the world. Experience on the matter has been accumulated in international and multilateral organizations such as the International Labour Organization, the World Health Organization, the United Nations Environment Programme, the Food and Agriculture Organization and the European Union.

Much has been done in this field by Russian and American scientists. In 1922 studies were launched in Russia to set up standards for chemicals in the air of indoor work areas, and the first maximum allowable concentration (MAC) value for sulphur-containing gas was adopted. By 1930 only 12 MAC values were established, whereas by 1960 their number reached 181.

The American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists (ACGIH) started its work in 1938, and the first threshold limit values (TLVs) list was published in 1946 for 144 substances. The TLVs are to be interpreted and used only by the specialists in this field. If a TLV has been included in the safety standards (the so-called standards of national consensus) and the federal standards, it becomes legal.

At present more than 1,500 MAC values have been adopted for workplace air in Russia. More than 550 TLVs for chemical substances have been recommended in the United States.

Analysis of hygienic standards made in 1980–81 showed that 220 chemicals of the MAC list (Russia) and the TLV list (United States) had the following differences: from two- to fivefold differences were found in 48 substances (22%), 42 substances had five- to ten-fold differences, and 69% substances (31%) had more than ten-fold differences. Ten per cent of the recommended TLVs were 50 times higher than the MAC values for the same substances. The MAC values, in turn, were higher than the TLVs for 16 substances.

The largest divergence of standards occurs in the class of chlorinated hydrocarbons. Analysis of the TLV list adopted in 1989–90 showed a trend toward a reduction of the earlier recommended TLVs compared with the MAC values for chlorinated hydrocarbons and some solvents. Differences among the TLVs and the MACs for the majority of metal aerosols, metalloids, and their compounds were insignificant. The divergences for irritant gases were also slight. The TLVs for lead, manganese and tellurium compared with their MAC analogues disagreed 15, 16 and 10 times, respectively. The differences for acetic aldehyde and formaldehyde were the most extreme—36 and 6 times, respectively. In general, the MAC values adopted in Russia are lower than the TLVs recommended in the United States.

These divergences are explained by the principles used in the development of hygienic standards in the two countries and by the way of these standards are applied to protect workers’ health.

A MAC is a hygienic standard used in Russia to denote a concentration of a harmful substance in the air of the workplace which will not cause, in the course of work for eight hours daily or for any other period of time (but not more than 41 hours per week throughout the working life of an individual), any disease or deviation in the health status as detectable by the available methods of investigation, during the working life or during the subsequent life of the present and next generations. Thus, the concept used in defining the MAC does not allow for any adverse effect on a worker or his or her progeny. The MAC is a safe concentration.

A TLV is the concentration (in air) of a material to which most workers can be exposed daily without adverse effect. These values are established (and revised annually) by the ACGIH and are time-weighted concentrations for a seven- or eight-hour workday and 40-hour workweek. For most materials the value may be exceeded, to a certain extent, provided there are compensatory periods of exposure below the value during the workday (or in some cases the week). For a few materials (mainly those that produce a rapid response) the limit is given as ceiling concentration (i.e., a maximum allowable concentration) that should never be exceeded. The ACGIH states that TLVs should be used as guides in the control of health hazards, and are not fine lines between safe and dangerous concentrations, nor are they a relative index of toxicity.

The TLV definition also contains the principle of inadmissibility of harmful impact. However, it does not cover all of the working population, and it is admitted that a small percentage of workers may manifest health changes or even occupational pathologies. Thus TLVs are not safe for all workers.

According to ILO and WHO experts, these divergences are the result of different scientific approaches to a number of interrelated factors including the definition of an adverse health effect. Therefore, different initial approaches for the control of chemical hazards lead to different methodological principles, essential points of which are presented below.

The main principles of setting hygienic standards for dangerous substances in the air of workplaces in Russia compared with those in the United States are summarized in table 23.1 . Of special importance is the theoretical concept of the threshold, the basic difference between the Russian and the American specialists that underlies their approaches to setting standards. Russia accepts the concept of a threshold for all types of dangerous effects of chemical substances.

Table 23.1 A comparison of some ideological bases for Russian and American standards

Russia (MACs)

United States (TLVs)

Threshold nature of all kinds of adverse effects. Changes of specific and non-specific factors regarding the criteria of harmful impact are evaluated.

No recognition of threshold for mutagens and some carcinogens. Changes of specific and non-specific factors depending on “dose-effect ”and “dose-response” relationship are evaluated.

Priority of medical and biological factors over technological and economic criteria.

Technological and economic criteria prevail.

Prospective toxicological assessment and interpretation of standards before the commercialization of chemical products.

Retrospective setting of standards.

However, the recognition of a threshold for some types of effects requires the distinction between injurious and non-injurious effects produced by chemical substances. Consequently, the threshold of unhealthy effects established in Russia is the minimal concentration (dose) of a chemical that causes changes beyond the limits of physiological adaptive responses or produces latent (temporarily compensated) pathologies. In addition, various statistical, metabolic, and toxico-kinetic criteria of adverse effects of chemicals are used to differentiate between the processes of physiological adaptation and pathological compensation. Pathomorphological changes and narcotic symptoms of earliest impairment have been suggested in the United States for the identification of injurious and non-injurious effects. It means that more sensitive methods have been chosen for the toxicity evaluation in Russia than those in the United States. This, therefore, explains the generally lower levels of MACs compared to TLVs. When the detection criteria for injurious and non-injurious effects of chemicals are close or practically coincide, as in the case of irritant gases, the differences in standards are not so significant.

The evolution of toxicology has put into practice new methods for the identification of minor changes in tissues. These are enzyme induction in the smooth endoplastic reticular hepatic tissue and reversible hypertrophy of the liver. These changes may appear after exposure to low concentrations of many chemical substances. Some researchers consider these to be adaptive reactions, while others interpret them as early impairments. Today, one of the most difficult tasks of toxicology is obtaining data that show whether enzyme disturbances, nervous system disorders and changes in behavioural responses are the result of deteriorated physiological functions. This would make it possible to predict more serious and/or irreversible impairments in case of long-term exposure to dangerous substances.

Special emphasis is placed on the differences in the sensitivity of methods used for the establishment of MACs and TLVs. Very sensitive methods of conditioned reflexes applied to studies of the nervous system in Russia have been found to be the main cause of divergences between the MACs and the TLVs. However, the use of this method in the process of hygienic standardization is not obligatory. Numerous methods of different sensitivities are normally used for the developing of a hygienic standard.

A great number of studies conducted in the United States in connection with the setting-up of exposure limits are aimed at examining the transformation of industrial compounds in the human body (routes of exposure, circulation, metabolism, removal, etc.). Methods of chemical analysis used to establish the values of TLVs and MACs also cause divergences due to their different selectivities, accuracies and sensitivities. An important element usually taken into consideration by OSHA in the standardization process in the United States is the “technical attainability” of a standard by industry. As a result, some standards are recommended on a basis of the lowest presently existing concentrations.

MAC values in Russia are established on a basis of the prevalence of medico-biological characteristics, whereas the technological attainability of a standard is practically ignored. This partly explains lower MAC values for some chemical substances.

In Russia MAC values are assessed in toxicological studies before a substance is authorized for industrial use. A tentative safe exposure level is established during the laboratory synthesis of a chemical. The MAC value is established after animal experiments, at the design stage of the industrial process. The correction of the MAC value is carried out after evaluation of working conditions and workers’ health when the substance is used in industry. Most of the safe levels of exposure in Russia have been recommended after experiments on animals.

In the United States a final standard is established after a chemical substance has been introduced in industry, because the values of permissible levels of exposure are based on the assessment of health. As long as the differences of principle between the MACs and the TLVs remain, it is unlikely to expect the convergence of these standards in the near future. However, there is a trend towards the reduction of some TLVs that makes this not so impossible as it may seem.


Georges H. Coppée

The role of international organizations is essentially to offer an organized framework for international cooperation. Over the centuries people have exchanged information and experiences in many ways. Cooperation between countries, scientists and professional groups developed progressively over time, but by the beginning of the 20th century it had become obvious that some issues could be faced only collectively.

In general, a distinction is made between “intergovernmental” and “non-governmental” international organizations. Intergovernmental organizations (IGOs) include the United Nations and its specialized agencies. There are also many other intergovernmental organizations, such as the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the Organization of African Unity (OAU), the Organization of American States (OAS), and regional or subregional entities, such as the European Union (formerly the European Communities), MERCOSUR (Southern Market—Mercado Comun del Sur), the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) and the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) between Canada, the United States and Mexico.

Some international non-governmental organizations, such as the International Commission on Occupational Health (ICOH) and the International Social Security Association (ISSA), cover all aspects of occupational health and safety. Many international non-governmental organizations are interested in occupational health and safety within the frameworks of their broader activities, such as the employers’ and workers’ organizations and the international associations of various professional groups. Some non-governmental organizations, such as the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), deal with standardization, and many other non-governmental organizations deal with specific subject areas or with specific sectors of economic activities.

Many intergovernmental and non-governmental organizations have interests in occupational health and safety, which involves technical, medical, social and legal aspects as well as a variety of disciplines, professions and social groups. There is a comprehensive network of organizations whose knowledge and capabilities can be used to promote exchange of information and experience among countries.

Aims and Purposes of Intergovernmental Organizations

One of the important roles of international organizations is to translate agreed-upon values into rights and obligations. The Charter of the United Nations (United Nations 1994) provides a good example of what the role of an international organization in the UN system should be—that is, “to achieve international cooperation in solving international problems of an economic, social, cultural, or humanitarian character, and in improving and encouraging respect for human rights and for fundamental freedom for all without distinction as to race, sex, language or religion.” The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights refers to the principles proclaimed in the Charter of the United Nations and recognizes the right of everyone to safe and healthy working conditions.

The aims and purposes of international organizations are set out in their Charters, Constitutions, Statutes or Basic Texts. For example, the Constitution of the World Health Organization (WHO) (1978) states that its aim is “the attainment by all people of the highest possible level of health”. Protection of the worker against sickness, disease and injury arising from employment is one of the tasks assigned to the International Labour Organization (ILO) in the words of the Preamble of its Constitution (see below and ILO 1992).

The Declaration on the Aims and Purposes of the International Labour Organization, adopted by the International Labour Conference at its 26th Session in Philadelphia in 1944, recognizes the obligation of the ILO to further, among the nations of the world, the implementation of programmes that will achieve “adequate protection for the life and health of workers in all occupations”.

The international community recognizes that there are issues where countries are interdependent. One of the main roles of the intergovernmental organizations is to address such issues. The Preamble of the ILO Constitution adopted in 1919 recognizes that “the failure of any nation to adopt humane conditions of labour is an obstacle in the way of other nations which desire to improve the conditions in their own countries” and considers that “a universal and lasting peace can only be established if it is based on social justice”. The ILO Declaration of Philadelphia states that “poverty anywhere constitutes a danger to prosperity everywhere”. The WHO Constitution states that an “unequal development in different countries in the promotion of health and control of diseases, especially communicable diseases, is a common danger” and that “the achievement of any State in the promotion and protection of health is valuable to all”. The role of international organizations is to ensure a continuity and create a stability over time towards such long-term policy objectives, while short- and medium-term planning often prevails at the national level because of local social and economic conditions and political circumstances.

Each international organization has a mandate assigned by its constituents. It is within their mandates that international organizations address specific issues such as occupational health and safety. Common features of intergovernmental organizations are that they provide guidance, formulate recommendations and develop standards. International instruments created within the United Nations system that can be applicable at the national level may be divided into two categories. Nonbinding instruments usually take the form of recommendations or resolutions and can serve as a basis for national legislation. Binding instruments entail the obligation that national laws and practices will be brought into line with the decisions agreed upon at the international level. Most binding instruments take the form of international Conventions that require an additional international act of ratification, approval or accession whereby a State establishes its consent to be bound by the obligations of the Convention.

International organizations represent a forum where their constituents elaborate and establish their common policies and strategies in a great variety of fields, including occupational safety and health. This is where countries confront their values and their opinions; exchange information and experience; discuss and propose solutions; and determine the ways to work together towards objectives in order to achieve consensus, agreement, or international conventions that define a common understanding of what is right to do and what should not be done.

One of the advantages of an international organization is to provide for international debates a controlled environment that is governed by rules and procedures agreed upon by its constituents, allowing, at the same time, for a multitude of informal and diplomatic contacts much wider than those that can be made at the level of a single country. Various groups and countries having similar problems in common may compare their approaches and improve their strategies. From an international perspective, it is easier to achieve objectivity about difficult but specific problems linked to national institutional arrangements or to particular historical conditions. Social partners who can hardly meet at the national level sit at the same table. The dialogue is renewed, and hope for a consensus may come to light where it might have been impossible at the national level. Pressure groups can play a catalytic role in the process of consensus building without a need for aggressive strategies. Not only can exchanges of information and experience take place at international conferences, but various groups can measure the worldwide acceptability of their ideas, values and policies at these conferences.

In practice, intergovernmental organizations are involved in a wide variety of activities covering exchange of information, transfer of knowledge, harmonization of terminology and concepts, consensus building, codes of conduct and of good practice, and promotion and coordination of research. Most international organizations also have numerous programmes and activities aimed at assisting their member States to achieve objectives relevant to their mandate, including technical cooperation. International organizations have at their disposal a variety of means of action, such as reports and studies, meetings of experts, seminars, workshops, symposia, conferences, technical advisory services, information exchanges, and a clearinghouse role. In the course of time, basic mandates of international organizations have been enlarged and made more specific by resolutions and programmes that have been approved by their constituents on the occasion of their general assemblies, such as the International Labour Conference of the ILO or the World Health Assembly of the WHO.

The United Nations and Its Specialized Agencies

In the United Nations system, two specialized agencies are directly concerned with occupational health and safety taken as a whole: the International Labour Organization (ILO) and the World Health Organization (WHO). Among the specialized agencies of the United Nations, the International Labour Organization has a unique character since it is tripartite (i.e., its constituents are governments, employers and workers). Another characteristic of the ILO is its standard-setting activities (i.e., the International Labour Conference adopts international Conventions and Recommendations). Since the working environment is considered an integral part of the human environment (International Labour Organization/United Nations Environment Programme/World Health Organization 1978) the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) also deals with the matter, in particular as regards chemicals. Its International Register of Potentially Toxic Chemicals (IRPTC) cooperates closely with the ILO and the WHO within the framework of the International Program on Chemical Safety (IPCS).

Apart from their headquarters, international organizations have field structures and specialized institutions or bodies, such as the WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), and the Pan-American Centre for Human Ecology and Health (ECO), which contributes to the implementation of the Regional Workers’ Health Program of the Pan-American Health Organization (PAHO). The ILO International Training Centre in Turin (Italy) carries out training activities in occupational health and safety and develops training materials for various professional groups, and the International Institute for Labour Studies (IILS) addresses from time to time occupational safety and health issues. The WHO and the ILO have regional offices, area offices and national correspondents. Regional ILO and WHO conferences are convened periodically. The PAHO was founded in 1902 and is also the WHO Regional Office for the Americas. In 1990, the Pan-American Sanitary Conference adopted a resolution on workers’ health (PAHO 1990) which established guidelines for PAHO’s programme and designated 1992 the “Year of Workers’ Health in the Americas”.

The ILO headquarters and field structures support the commitment and the activities of its member States in occupational health and safety within the framework of its International Programme for the Improvement of Working Conditions and Environment (PIACT) (ILO 1984). This programme includes a large variety of advisory services and technical cooperation activities all over the world. The ILO has recently adopted an active partnership policy (APP) that brings the organization closer to its tripartite constituents in member States by strengthening its field structures, most notably through the establishment of multidisciplinary teams (MDTs).

Several other UN specialized agencies have an important role concerning specific aspects of occupational health and safety, such as the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which is concerned with nuclear safety, the protection of workers from radiation, and the safety of radiation sources. The United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) is concerned with occupational safety and health in specific sectors of industry, and is engaged together with the UNEP and the World Bank in preparing guidelines for industrial pollution prevention and control that cover occupational health and safety issues as well. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) promotes safety in the use of pesticides (FAO 1985) and occupational health and safety in forestry, including cooperative arrangements with the ILO and the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe.

The Committee of Experts on Transport of Dangerous Goods of the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations prepared the Recommendations on the Transport of Dangerous Goods, which provide guidance in drafting national legislation and achieving some uniformity throughout the world for various modes of transport. The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) has established international standards for the operation of aircraft and has published a manual of civil aviation medicine that covers aspects relating to occupational health for flying personnel. The International Maritime Organization (IMO) has adopted an International Convention on Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS). The WHO, the ILO, and the IMO have prepared an International Medical Guide for ships that includes distinct parts containing a schedule for the contents of a ship’s medicine chest and a medical section of the International Code of Signals. A medical first aid guide for use in accidents involving dangerous substances was jointly prepared by the IMO, the WHO and the ILO.

Funding organizations such as the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) have been financially supporting over the last 25 years a large number of occupational health and safety projects in many countries, including the establishment of national occupational safety and health institutes. The executing agencies for these projects have been the ILO, the WHO, and both organizations jointly. In its economic development projects, the World Bank takes into account environmental, health and human ecological considerations (World Bank 1974), including occupational health and safety. In 1987, the World Bank embarked on a major effort to incorporate environmental concerns into all aspects of its activities. This includes a stronger focus on the development of institutional capacity for environmental management at the country level, a greater recognition of the need to embed environmental concerns into sectoral work, and increased emphasis on the social aspects of environmentally sustainable development (World Bank 1993a). Furthermore, the Report Investing in Health, examines the interplay between human health, health policy and economic development (World Bank 1993b).

Other Intergovernmental Organizations

The activities of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) are particularly important as regards environmental health issues, safety in the use of chemicals, methods for the evaluation of chemical risks, and protection from radiation. The Council of Europe has adopted a number of resolutions relating to occupational safety and health concerning, for example, safety services within enterprises. The European Social Charter, adopted by the Council of Europe in 1961, recognizes the right of workers to safe and healthy working conditions. The Nordic Council is concerned with occupational safety and health and environmental problems and makes recommendations regarding toxic and dangerous substances, nuclear safety, and protection from radiation, as well as programmes of action on the occupational environment. The Arab Labour Organization, chartered in 1965, is a specialized agency within the framework of the Arab League; it undertakes studies and conducts research in industrial safety and occupational health. The countries from MERCOSUR have a special commission for the harmonization of legislation in occupational health and safety.

The European Union adopts directives that are compulsory for its member States and should be translated into national laws. The European directives cover the whole field of occupational health and safety with the aim of harmonizing national legislation, taking into account the principle of subsidiarity. Three levels of directives can be identified (TUTB 1991): the framework directives, such as the Directive on the Introduction of Measures to Encourage Improvement in Safety and Health of Workers at Work (89/391); those that cover the risks to which workers are exposed (lead, asbestos, noise, ionizing radiation and so on); and those that establish the rules governing the design of work equipment. Technical standards are developed by European Commissions for Standardization (CEN, CENELEC). 

The Commission of the European Union (formerly the Commission of the European Communities) prepares the directives and has an important occupational safety and health programme (Commission of the European Communities 1990). The European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions, in Dublin, has activities in occupational safety and health, including a working group on occupational health strategies in Europe. The year 1992 was designated the “European Year of Safety, Hygiene and Health Protection at Work”, and a large number of occupational safety and health activities have been supported in countries of the European Union. A European Agency for Safety and Health at Work was established in Bilbao (Spain) as a specialized body of the European Union.

International Non-governmental Organizations

Scientific, professional and other groups also felt the need to develop international cooperation and join in international non-governmental organizations. They may be formed of individual specialists, national associations of specialists, or institutions. The International Commission on Occupational Health (ICOH) was founded in 1906 as the Permanent Commission on Occupational Diseases. It is discussed in a separate article in this chapter. 

The International Social Security Association (ISSA) is an international organization of official agencies responsible for the administration of social security and has had a programme concerning the prevention of occupational risks since 1954 and is also discussed separately in this chapter. 

While the ICOH and the ISSA are concerned with the whole field of occupational health and safety, there are a number of non-governmental organizations that deal with specific sectors of economic activity, such as agriculture, or with specific subject areas as varied as technology, toxicology, psychology, work organization, process safety, human engineering, epidemiology, social medicine, lifting appliances, cargo handling, pressured vessels, transport of containers and of dangerous materials, safety signals, road safety and nuclear safety. Numerous international non-governmental organizations are concerned with the environment and the protection of consumers, including the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources—World Conservation Union (IUCN) and the International Organization of Consumers Unions (IOCU). They are interested in environmental health and, to some extent, in occupational health, particularly in chemical safety and pesticides.

In the field of the protection of workers, patients and the public from adverse effects of ionizing radiation, the work of the International Commission on Radiological Protection (ICRP) is authoritative worldwide and serves as a basis for international recommendations by intergovernmental organizations. The International Radiation Protection Association (IRPA) has established an International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection (ICNIRP), which issues guidelines on exposure limits and contributes to the ILO and WHO publications on non-ionizing radiation. Many other international non-governmental organizations or associations could be mentioned since they deal with occupational health and safety or are interested in specific aspects of occupational health and safety, including the International Ergonomic Association (IEA), the Ergonomics Society of French-Speaking Countries (SELF), the International Council of Nurses (ICN), the Inter-American Safety Council (IASC), the International Association of Labour Inspection (IALA), the International Occupational Hygiene Association (IOHA), the International Association on Agricultural Medicine and Rural Health (IAAMRH), the International Association of Public and Rural Health, the Latino-American Association of Occupational Safety and Hygiene (ALASEHT), the International Federation of Associations of Specialists in Occupational Safety and Industrial Hygiene, the European Association of Schools of Occupational Medicine, the World Federation of Associations of Clinical Toxicology and Poison Control Centres, and the International Safety Council, a global subsidiary of the US National Safety Council.

Another group of non-governmental organizations consists of those having standardization as their objective, such as the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) and the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC). ISO is discussed in a separate article in this chapter.

International employers’ and workers’ organizations play a significant role in defining occupational health and safety policies and priorities at the international level. Their involvement is important because national labour laws and regulations make employers responsible for protection against occupational hazards, and the most concerned are the workers themselves, since it is their health and safety that are at risk. A number of employers’ and workers’ international organizations are concerned with occupational safety and health taken as a whole, including the International Employers Organization (IOE), the Union of Industrial and Employers Confederations of Europe (UNICE), the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU), the World Confederation of Labour (WCL), and the World Federation of Trade Unions (WFTU). There are many sectoral international trade union organizations that deal with specific aspects, such as the International Confederation of Chemical, Energy, Mine and General Workers’ Union (ICEM), the International Metal Workers Federation (IMF), the International Federation of Building and Wood Workers (IFBWW), the International Federation of Plantation, Agricultural and Allied Workers, and the International Federation of Commercial, Clerical and Technical Employees (FIET). There also exist regional organizations, such as the Organization of African Trade Union Unity (OATUU) and the European Confederation of Trade Unions (ECTU), which has established a European Trade Union Technical Bureau for Occupational Safety and Health (TUTB). These organizations have a wide variety of activities, in particular concerning the dissemination of information, technical advice, and training in occupational health and safety.

Producers, manufacturers, and operators are also active in the field of occupational safety and health, either through their associations or through institutes and bodies that they have established, such as the International Council of Chemical Associations (ICCA), the European Council of Chemical Manufacturers Federations (CEFIC), the International Group of National Associations of Agrochemical Manufacturers (GIFAP), the International Air Transport Association (IATA), the World Association of Nuclear Power Plant Operators (WANO), the Illuminating Engineering Society (IES), the Asbestos International Association (AIA), the International Fiber Safety Group (IFSG), and the Viral Hepatitis Prevention Board (action on hepatitis B as an occupational hazard). In addition, a number of institutions and international bodies established by producers, manufacturers and their organizations develop activities relating to the protection of the environment and environmental health, which may include occupational health to some extent, such as the International Centre for Industry and the Environment (ICIE), the International Council on Metals and the Environment (ICME), the International Primary Aluminum Institute (IPAI), and the Oil Companies International Study Group for Conservation of Clean Air and Water (CONCAWE).

Finally, there are many international non-governmental organizations established by scientists, professional associations or groups having similar scientific, humanitarian or economic interests that do not have direct interests in occupational health but are dealing with scientific, technical, medical or social issues that are relevant to occupational health and safety, such as the World Medical Association (WMA), the Council for International Organizations of Medical Sciences (CIOMS), the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC), the International Council for Building Research Studies and Documentation, the International Epidemiological Association, the International Society for Labour Law and Social Security, and the International Bureau for Epilepsy (IBE), which prepared a Code of Principles of Good Practice for Employing People with Epilepsy.

Joint Programmes in International Cooperation

It is interesting to examine how international organizations complement each other and mobilize their various means of action to combat specific occupational hazards. As regards noise and vibration, for example, the IEC provides standards for measuring equipment, the ISO defines methods of measurement, the WHO provides health criteria, the ILO recommends exposure limits in its Code of Practice on Noise and Vibration and defines a general approach and strategy in its Working Environment (Air Pollution, Noise and Vibration) Convention, 1977 (No. 148) and Recommendation (No. 156).

The role of international organizations is increasingly characterized by cooperation within the framework of international programmes or joint ventures on specific subjects involving the countries themselves and inter-governmental and non-governmental organizations. International cooperation in protection against ionizing radiation and in promotion of chemical safety are two examples of such activities.

In the field of protection against ionizing radiation, the International Commission on Radiological Protection (ICRP) and the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) provide the scientific input. The ILO adopted in 1960 the Radiation Protection Convention (No. 115) and Recommendation (No. 114), which make specific reference to the guidance issued by the ICRP. More guidance is given in a number of codes of practice prepared by the IAEA, cosponsored by the ILO and the WHO, where appropriate, and in the ILO Code of Practice on Radiation Protection (ionizing radiation), 1987. These are supplemented by guides, manuals, training materials and technical documents published essentially by the IAEA and by the Nuclear Energy Agency of the OECD. Technical cooperation activities in this field are mainly carried out by the IAEA; other organizations are involved when needed.

In 1990, an important step towards international harmonization of radiation safety took place: the Inter-Agency Committee on Radiation Safety (IACRS) was established as a forum for consultation on and collaboration in radiation safety matters between international organizations. A joint secretariat was set up to revise the 1982 edition of the IAEA/ILO/WHO/NEA-OECD Basic Safety Standards for Radiation Protection. Six international organizations—the FAO, the IAEA, the ILO, the Nuclear Energy Agency of the OECD, the PAHO, and the WHO—joined to prepare international standards with the aim of helping their member States in drafting their own laws. Under the leadership of the IAEA, a major process of consultations with countries and among intergovernmental and non-governmental organizations, including employers’ and workers’ organizations, led to the elaboration of the International Standards for Protection against Ionizing Radiation and the Safety of Radiation Sources (IAEA 1994). These international standards can be regarded as unified standards for the UN system.

International cooperation in promoting chemical safety illustrates how international organizations interact in order to respond to concerns of people in the world expressed by the international community, and how general declarations of principles adopted by intergovernmental conferences are translated into programmes of action and practical activities based on scientific knowledge. There is a consensus that the evaluation of chemicals should address concerns about occupational exposures, public exposures, and the environment. To carry out risk assessments in an international framework is an asset for mobilizing limited expertise and resources. This led to the establishment in 1980 of the International Programme on Chemical Safety (IPCS) by the WHO, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the ILO. The commitment of the three cooperating organizations to collaborate in the IPCS was expressed through a memorandum of understanding in 1988 that establishes the objectives of the IPCS. The technical work of the IPCS relies on a network of national and international institutions that participate in its activities and are responsible for particular tasks. The programme maintains close and efficient working relations with several other intergovernmental and non-governmental organizations, associations, and professional bodies that have important activities in the field of chemical safety.

The United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, recognized the need to ensure the environmentally sound management of toxic chemicals and identified six programme areas for international cooperation: 

1.     expanding and accelerating the international assessment of chemical risks

2.     harmonization of classification and labelling of chemicals

3.     information exchange on toxic chemicals and chemical risks

4.     establishment of risk reduction programmes

5.     strengthening of national capabilities and capacities for management of chemicals 

6.     prevention of illegal international traffic of toxic and dangerous products.

This was followed in 1994 by an International Conference on Chemical Safety (Stockholm Conference 1994), which established the Intergovernmental Forum on Chemical Safety, identified a number of priorities for action, and invited intergovernmental organizations to participate in an expanded collaborative programme on chemical safety. An Inter-Organization Programme for the Sound Management of Chemicals (IOMC) was established in which the WHO, ILO, UNEP, FAO, UNIDO and OECD participate. It includes an Inter-Organization Coordinating Committee (IOCC), which ensures the coordination of activities on chemical safety carried out by the participating organizations, individually or jointly, and follows up the implementation of the recommendations of UNCED.

There are signs of an increasing trend to mobilize expertise and resources within the framework of joint activities. Such is the case, for example, in the field of training and information exchange in occupational health and safety. As regards biological safety, cooperation was developed between the UNIDO, the UNEP, the WHO and the FAO, and some activities were carried out within the framework of the IPCS. The UNIDO has been designated to follow up Chapter 16 of Agenda 21 (environmentally sound management of biotechnology) of the Rio Conference, to catalyze joint activities and programmes, and to develop common UN system strategies on biotechnology. The OECD has a programme on environmental aspects of biotechnology. The European Directive concerning the protection of workers against biological agents at work (90/679 and 93/88) was adopted in 1990 and modified in 1993. In 1993, the International Labour Conference of the International Labour Organization adopted a resolution concerning exposure to and safety in the use of biological agents at work that indicates that the issue should be studied, including the need for new international instruments (convention, recommendation, or both) to minimize the risks to workers, the public and the environment.

Two additional examples concern the protection of workers against non-ionizing radiation and the harmonization of chemical classification and labelling systems. Environmental health criteria documents on non-ionizing radiation were prepared by the WHO, the UNEP and the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection (ICNIRP). A broader cooperation on protection against non-ionizing radiation, including occupational exposure, is now developing, which includes the ILO, the Commission of the European Union, the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC), the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) and the Scientific Committee on Radiation and Work of the ICOH. The harmonization of chemical classification and labelling systems is a field where extensive cooperation is promoted, under the leadership of the ILO, among countries, intergovernmental organizations (e.g., OECD; the European Union), non-governmental organizations (employers’ and workers’ organizations; international consumer and environmental protection associations), the UN Committee of Experts on Transport of Dangerous Goods, the FAO, the UNEP, the WHO, the IMO and the ICAO.

There are many other fields where new, flexible forms of international cooperation among countries and international organizations are emerging or could be developed, such as occupational stress and combating occupational lung diseases, in particular silicosis. International networking for occupational health and safety is developing increasingly with objectives such as coordinating research. It would be an advantage if an international network for occupational health and safety could be developed on the basis of existing structures in international organizations that could be interconnected, such as the Collaborating Centres of WHO, the Scientific Committees of ICOH, the International Sections of ISSA, the National Correspondents of IRPTC, the contact points of the OECD Complementary Information Procedure, the Participating Institutions of IPCS, the National and Collaborating Centres of the ILO International Occupational Safety and Health Information Centre (CIS), and the designated bodies of the ILO International Occupational Safety and Health Hazard Alert System.

Common Goals and Complementary Approaches in Occupational Health

In the field of occupational health, the ultimate goals of the WHO and the ILO are the same: to protect and promote the health of the workers in all occupations. Policy guidance is given by the ILO on the basis of its international Conventions and Recommendations on occupational health and safety and by the WHO through the resolutions adopted by the World Health Assembly concerning workers’ health and the primary health care approach that it advocates.

Since the Primary Health Care Conference in Alma-Ata in 1978, the WHO workers’ health programme has attempted to extend its health protection and health promotion activities to cover all people at work, paying special attention to the underserved and the vulnerable working populations. The 40th World Health Assembly requested the Director-General of the WHO:

1.     to promote the implementation of the workers’ health programme, as part of the national health system based on primary health care, in close cooperation with other relevant programmes, non-governmental organizations, and all United Nations agencies

2.     to elaborate guidelines on primary health care in the workplace, addressed particularly to the underserved working populations and including the educational materials needed at various levels

3.     to develop guidelines on health promotion in the workplace in cooperation with the WHO collaborating centres

4.     to promote regional activities in workers’ health where appropriate.

In October 1994, the Second Meeting of the Network of Collaborating Centres in Occupational Health (52 research and expert institutions from 35 countries) adopted a “Global Strategy on Occupational Health for All” and recommended that this document be submitted for consideration by the WHO to be converted into the WHO “Global Strategy on Occupational Health for All”. This was done in May 1996, with the support of the ILO.

The ILO Conventions and Recommendations on occupational safety and health define the rights of the workers and allocate duties and responsibilities to the competent authority, the employers and the workers in the field of occupational safety and health. The ILO Conventions and Recommendations adopted by the International Labour Conference, taken as a whole, constitute the International Labour Code, which defines minimum standards in the labour field. The ILO policy on occupational health and safety is essentially contained in two international Conventions and their accompanying Recommendations. The ILO Occupational Safety and Health Convention 1981 (No. 155) and Recommendation (No. 164), provide for the adoption of a national occupational safety and health policy and describe the actions needed at the national level and at the enterprise level to promote occupational safety and health and to improve the working environment. The ILO Occupational Health Services Convention 1985 (No. 161) and Recommendation (No. 171), provide for the establishment of occupational health services which will contribute to the implementation of the occupational safety and health policy and will perform their functions at the enterprise level.

In 1984, the International Labour Conference adopted a Resolution concerning the improvement of working conditions and environment, which recalled that the improvement of the working conditions and environment was an essential element in the promotion of social justice. It stressed that improved working conditions and improved environment are a positive contribution to national development and represent a measure of success of any economic and social policy. It spelled out the three fundamental principles that:

·     Work should take place in a safe and healthy working environment.

·     Conditions of work should be consistent with workers’ well-being and human dignity.

·     Work should offer real possibilities for personal achievement, self-fulfilment, and service to society.

There are many similar features between the ILO strategy for the improvement of the working conditions and environment and the WHO primary health care approach. They rest on similar basic principles and they both: 

1.     aim at all concerned, workers or the public

2.     define policies, strategies and means of action

3.     insist on the responsibility of each employer for the health and safety of the workers in his or her employment

4.     emphasize primary prevention, control of risk at the source, and health education

5.     give special importance to information and training

6.     indicate the need to develop an occupational health practice that is easily accessible to all and available at the workplace

7.     recognize the central place of participation—community participation in health programmes and workers’ participation in the improvement of the working conditions and the working environment.

8.     highlight the interactions between health environment and development, as well as between occupational safety and health and productive employment.

The current trend of globalization for the world economy, and regional integration, has increased interdependence and the need for cooperation between countries. This overview shows that there are common goals, approaches and policies in occupational health and safety. There is also a structure on which a global cooperation can be built. This is the objective of the Global Programme on Safety, Health and the Environment, to be launched by the ILO in 1998.


*This article is adapted from Basic Facts About the United Nations (United Nations 1992).

Origin of the United Nations

The United Nations was, in 1992, an organization of 179 nations legally committed to cooperate in supporting the principles and purposes set out in its Charter. These include commitments to eradicate war, promote human rights, maintain respect for justice and international law, promote social progress and friendly relations among nations, and use the Organization as a centre to harmonize their actions in order to attain these ends.

The United Nations Charter was written in the closing days of the Second World War by the representatives of 50 governments meeting at the United Nations Conference on International Organization in 1945. The Charter was drafted on the basis of proposals worked out by the representatives of China, France, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom and the United States. It was adopted and signed on 26 June 1945.

To millions of refugees from war and persecution, the United Nations has provided shelter and relief. It has acted as a major catalyst in the evolution of 100 million people from colonial rule to independence and sovereignty. It has established peace-keeping operations many times to contain hostilities and to help resolve conflicts. It has expanded and codified international law. It has wiped smallpox from the face of the planet. In the five decades of its existence, the Organization has adopted some 70 legal instruments promoting or obligating respect for human rights, thus facilitating an historic change in the popular expectation of freedom throughout the world.


The Charter declares that membership of the UN is open to all peace-loving nations which accept its obligations and which, in the judgement of the Organization, are willing and able to carry out these obligations. States are admitted to membership by the General Assembly on the recommendation of the Security Council. The Charter also provides for the suspension or expulsion of Members for violation of the principles of the Charter, but no such action has ever been taken.

Official Languages

Under the Charter the official languages of the United Nations are Chinese, English, French, Russian and Spanish. Arabic has been added as an official language of the General Assembly, the Security Council and the Economic and Social Council.


The United Nations is a complex network consisting of six main organs with a large number of related programmes, agencies, commissions and other bodies. These related bodies have different legal status (some are autonomous, some are under the direct authority of the UN and so on), objectives and areas of responsibility, but the system displays a very high level of cooperation and collaboration. Figure 23.3  provides a schematic illustration of the structure of the system and some of the links between the different bodies. For further information, reference should be made to: Basic Facts About the United Nations (1992).

Figure 23.3 The Charter established six principal organs of the United Nations

International Court of Justice

The International Court of Justice is the principal judicial organ of the UN. The Court is open to the parties to its Statute, which automatically includes all Members of the UN. Other States can refer cases to the Court under conditions laid down by the Security Council. In addition, the Security Council may recommend that a legal dispute be referred to the Court. Only States may be party to cases before the Court (i.e., the Court is not open to individuals). Both the General Assembly and the Security Council can ask the Court for an advisory opinion on any legal question; other organs of the UN and the specialized agencies, when authorized by the General Assembly, can ask for advisory opinions on legal questions within the scope of their activities (for example, the International Labour Organization could request an advisory opinion relating to an international labour standard).

The jurisdiction of the Court covers all matters provided for in the UN Charter or in treaties or conventions in force, and all other questions which States refer to it. In deciding cases, the Court is not restricted to principles of law contained in treaties or conventions, but may employ the entire sphere of international law (including customary law).

The General Assembly

The General Assembly is the main deliberative organ. It is composed of representatives of all Member States, each of which has one vote. Decisions on important questions, such as those on peace and security, admission of new Members and budgetary matters, require a two-thirds majority. Decisions on other questions are reached by a simple majority.

The functions and powers of the General Assembly include the consideration of and formulation of recommendations on the principles of cooperation in the maintenance of international peace and security, including disarmament and the regulation of armaments. The General Assembly also initiates studies and makes recommendations to promote international political cooperation, the development and codification of international law, the realization of human rights and fundamental freedoms for all, and international collaboration in the economic, social, cultural, educational and health fields. It receives and deliberates on reports from the Security Council and other UN organs; considers and approves the UN budget and apportions the contributions among Members; and elects the non-permanent members of the Security Council, the members of the Economic and Social Council and those members of the Trusteeship Council that are elected. The General Assembly also elects jointly with the Security Council the Judges of the International Court of Justice and, on the recommendation of the Security Council, appoints the Secretary-General.

At the beginning of each regular session, the General Assembly holds a general debate, in which Member States express their views on a wide range of matters of international concern. Because of the great number of questions which the General Assembly is called upon to consider (over 150 agenda items at the 1992 session, for example), the Assembly allocates most questions to its seven main committees:

·     First Committee (disarmament and related international security matters)

·     Special Political Committee

·     Second Committee (economic and financial matters)

·     Third Committee (social, humanitarian and cultural matters)

·     Fourth Committee (decolonization matters)

·     Fifth Committee (administrative and budgetary matters)

·     Sixth Committee (legal matters).

Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC)

ECOSOC was established by the Charter as the principal organ to coordinate the economic and social work of the UN and the specialized agencies and institutions. The Economic and Social Council serves as the central forum for the discussion of international economic and social issues of a global or inter-disciplinary nature and the formulation of policy recommendations on those issues, and works to promote respect for, and observance of, human rights and fundamental freedoms for all. ECOSOC may make or initiate studies and reports and recommendations on international economic, social, cultural, educational, health and related matters, and call international conferences and prepare draft conventions for submission to the General Assembly. Other powers and functions include the negotiation of agreements with the specialized agencies defining their relationship with the UN and the coordination of their activities, and consultation with NGOs concerned with matters with which the Council deals.

Subsidiary bodies

The subsidiary machinery of the Council includes functional and regional commissions, six standing committees (for example, the Committee on Non-Governmental Organizations and on Transnational Corporations) and a number of standing expert bodies on such subjects as crime prevention and control, development planning, and the transport of dangerous goods.

Relations with non-governmental organizations

Over 900 NGOs have consultative status with the Council, with varying levels of involvement. These NGOs may send observers to public meetings of the Council and its subsidiary bodies and may submit written statements relevant to the Council’s work. They may also consult with the UN Secretariat on matters of mutual concern.

Security Council

The Security Council has primary responsibility, under the Charter, for the maintenance of international peace and security. While other organs of the UN make recommendations to governments, the Council alone has the power to take decisions which Member States are obligated under the Charter to carry out.


The Secretariat, an international staff working at UN Headquarters in New York and in the field, carries out the diverse day-to-day work of the Organization. It services the other organs of the UN and administers the programmes and policies laid down by them. At its head is the Secretary-General, who is appointed by the General Assembly on the recommendation of the Security Council for a term of five years.

Trusteeship Council

In setting up an International Trusteeship System, the Charter established the Trusteeship Council as one of the main organs of the UN and assigned to it the task of supervising the administration of Trust Territories placed under the Trusteeship System. Major goals of the System are to promote the advancement of the inhabitants of Trust Territories and their progressive development towards self-government or independence.

The Role of the United Nations System in Occupational Health and Safety

Contact Information for United Nations Organizations

WHO Headquarters:
150, cours Albert Thomas,
F-69372 Lyon Cedex 08, France
Tel.: +33-7 273 84 85;
Fax: +33-7 273 85 75;
Telex: 380023
Headquarters: 20 avenue Appia,
1211 Geneva 27, Switzerland
Tel.: +41-22-791 21 11
Fax: +41-22-791 07 46
Telex: 845 415 416

1 United Nations Plaza,
New York,
NY 10017,
United States
Tel.: +1-212-906 5000
Fax: +1-212-906 5778

Viale delle Terme de Caracalla,
I-00100 Rome, Italy
Tel.: +39-6-522 51
Fax: +39-6-522 53 152
Telex: 610181 FAO I

IARC Headquarters:
150, cours Albert Thomas,
F-69372 Lyon Cedex 08, France
Tel.: +33-7 273 84 85
Fax: +33-7 273 85 75
Telex: 380023

4 Albert Embankment,
London SE1 7SR,
United Kingdom
Tel.: +44-171-735 7611
Fax: +44-171-587 3210
Telex: 23588

P.O. Box 30552,
Nairobi, Kenya
Tel.: 2-23 08 00
Fax:2-22 68 31
Telex: 22068 KNEPKE

Palais des Nations,
CH 1211
Geneva 10,
Tel.: +41-22-907 12 34
Fax: +41-22-907 00 57

Headquarters Vienna International Centre, Wagramerstrasse 5,
P.O. Box 100,
A-1400 Vienna, Austria
Tel.: +43-1-23 60
Fax: +43-1-23 45 64
Telex: 112645 ATOM A

While the improvement of working conditions and environment will normally be part of national policy to further economic development and social progress in accordance with national objectives and priorities, a measure of international harmonization is necessary to ensure that the quality of the working environment everywhere is compatible with workers’ health and welfare, and to assist Member States to this effect. This is, essentially, the role of the UN system in this field.

Within the UN system, many organizations and bodies play a role in the improvement of the working conditions and the working environment. The International Labour Organization (ILO) has a constitutional mandate to improve working conditions and environment to humanize work; its tripartite structure can ensure that its international standards have a direct impact on national legislation, policies and practices and is discussed in a separate article in this chapter.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has a mandate in occupational health derived from its Constitution, which identified WHO as “the directing and coordinating authority on international health work”, and stated WHO’s functions which include the “promotion of ... economic and working conditions and other aspects of environmental hygiene”. Additional mandates are derived from various resolutions of the World Health Assembly and Executive Board. WHO’s occupational health programme aims to promote the knowledge and control of workers’ health problems, including occupational and work-related diseases, and to cooperate with countries in the development of health care programmes for workers, particularly those who are generally underserviced. The WHO, in collaboration with the ILO, UNEP and other organizations, undertakes technical cooperation with Member States, produces guidelines, and carries out field studies and occupational health training and personnel development. The WHO has set up the GEENET—the Global Environmental Epidemiology Network—which includes institutions and individuals from all over the world who are actively involved in research and training on environmental and occupational epidemiology. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has been established as an independent research institute, but within the framework of the WHO. The statutes of the Agency set out its mission as “planning, promoting and developing research in all phases of the causation, treatment and prevention of cancer”. Since the start of its research activity, the Agency has devoted itself to studying the causes of cancer present in the human environment, in the belief that identification of a carcinogenic agent was the first and necessary step towards reducing or removing the causal agent from the environment, with the aim of preventing cancer that it might have caused. The Agency’s research activities fall into two main groups—epidemiological and laboratory-based experimental but there is considerable interaction between these groups in the actual research projects undertaken.

Besides these two organizations with a central focus on work and health, respectively, several UN bodies include health and safety matters within their specific sectoral or geographical functions:

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has the mandate to safeguard and enhance the environment for the benefit of present and future generations, including the working environment. It has a basic coordinating and catalytic function for environment in general within the UN system. It discharges this function through programme coordination and the support of activities by the Environment Fund. In addition to its general mandate, UNEP’s specific mandate with regard to the working environment stems from Recommendations 81 and 83 of the UN Conference on the Human Environment, and UNEP Governing Council Decisions requesting the Executive Director to integrate the principles and objectives related to the improvement of the working environment fully into the framework of the environment programme. UNEP is also required to collaborate with the appropriate organizations of workers and employers, in the development of a coordinated system-wide action programme on the working and living environment of workers, and with the UN bodies concerned (for example, UNEP cooperates with the WHO and the ILO in the International Programme on Chemical Safety).

UNEP maintains the International Register of Potentially Toxic Chemicals (IRPTC), which strives to bridge the gap between the world’s chemical knowledge and those who need to use it. UNEP’s network of environmental agreements is also having an ever-increasing international effect, and gathering momentum (for example, the historic Vienna Convention and the Montreal Protocol on the protection of the ozone layer).

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is concerned with hazards resulting from ionizing radiation associated with the nuclear fuel cycle. The IAEA encourages and guides the development of peaceful uses of atomic energy, establishes standards for nuclear safety and environmental protection, aids member countries through technical cooperation, and fosters the exchange of scientific and technical information on nuclear energy. The activities of the Agency in the area of radiological protection of workers involve the development of these standards; preparation of safety guides, codes of practice and manuals; holding of scientific meetings for exchange of information or preparation of manuals or technical guidebooks; organizing training courses, visiting seminars and study tours; development of technical expertise in developing Member States through the awards of research contracts and fellowships; and helping the developing Member States in the organization of radiation protection programmes through the provision of technical assistance, experts’ services, advisory missions, and advisory services on nuclear law regulatory matters.

The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the World Bank have included provisions on occupational safeguards in development assistance agreements. The UNDP is engaged in a large number of projects designed to assist developing countries to build up their nascent economies and raise their living standards. Several thousand internationally recruited experts are kept steadily at work in the field. Several amongst these projects are devoted to the improvement of occupational safety and health standards in industry and other walks of economic life, the implementation of which is entrusted to the ILO and WHO. Such field projects may range from the provision of short-term consultancy to more massive assistance over a period of several years for the establishment of fully fledged occupational safety and health institutes designed to provide training, applied field research and direct service to places of employment.

The International Maritime Organization (IMO) deals with the safety of workers on board ships. IMO provides a forum for member governments and interested organizations to exchange information and endeavour to solve problems connected with technical, legal and other questions concerning shipping and the prevention of marine pollution by ships. IMO has drafted a number of conventions and recommendations which governments have adopted and which have entered into force. Among them are international conventions for the safety of life at sea, the prevention of marine pollution by ships, the training and certification of seafarers, the prevention of collisions at sea, several instruments dealing with liability and compensation, and many others. IMO has also adopted several hundred recommendations dealing with subjects such as the maritime transport of dangerous goods, maritime signals, safety for fishermen and fishing vessels, and the safety of nuclear merchant ships.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) has a role in protecting agricultural workers against hazards resulting from the use of pesticides, farm tools and machinery. A number of activities of FAO are directly or indirectly concerned with occupational safety and health and ergonomics in agricultural, forestry and fishery work. In fishery activities, FAO collaborates at the secretariat level with the ILO and the IMO on the IMO Sub-Committee on Safety of Fishing Vessels and participates actively in the work of the IMO Sub-Committee on Standards of Training and Watchkeeping. FAO collaborates with ILO in regard to conditions of work in the fishing industry. In forestry activities, the FAO/ECE/ILO Committee on Forest Working Techniques and Training of Forest Workers deals at the interagency level with health and safety matters. Field projects and publications in this area cover such aspects as safety in logging and industry and heat stress in forest work.

In the agricultural field some of the diseases of economic importance in livestock also present hazards to persons handling livestock and animal products (e.g., brucellosis, tuberculosis, leptospirosis, anthrax, rabies, Rift Valley fever). For these disease-related activities, close liaison is maintained with WHO through joint committees. FAO is also concerned with the harmonization of registration requirements for pesticides and the assessment of pesticide residues in food and in the environment. As regards atomic energy in food and agriculture, programmes are coordinated with the IAEA in order to assist scientists of developing countries to make safe and effective use of relevant isotope techniques (e.g., the use of radio-labelled enzyme substrates for detecting occupational exposure to insecticides).

The UN Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) aims to accelerate the industrial development of developing countries. It is concerned with occupational safety and health hazards, environment and hazardous waste management in relation to the industrialization process.

Regional UN Economic Commissions play a role in promoting more effective and harmonized action within their regions.

The UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) is concerned with the occupational aspects of the international transfer of goods, services and technology.


Georg R. Kliesch

The ILO is one of 18 specialized agencies of the United Nations. It is the oldest international organization within the UN family, and was founded by the Versailles Peace Conference in 1919 after the First World War.

Foundation of the ILO

Historically, the ILO is the outgrowth of the social thought of the 19th century. Conditions of workers in the wake of the industrial revolution were increasingly seen to be intolerable by economists and sociologists. Social reformers believed that any country or industry introducing measures to improve working conditions would raise the cost of labour, putting it at an economic disadvantage compared to other countries or industries. That is why they laboured with such persistence to persuade the powers of Europe to make better working conditions and shorter hours of work the subject of international agreements. After 1890 three international conferences were held on the subject: the first was convened jointly by the German emperor and the Pope in Berlin in 1890; another conference held in 1897 in Brussels was stimulated by the Belgian authorities; and a third, held in 1906 in Bern, Switzerland, adopted for the first time two international agreements on the use of white phosphorus (manufacturing of matches) and on the ban of night work in industry by women. As the First World War had prevented any further activities on the internationalization of labour conditions, the Peace Conference of Versailles, in its intention to eradicate the causes of future war, took up the goals of the pre-war activities and established a Commission on International Labour Legislation. The elaborated proposal of the Commission on the establishment of an international body for the protection of workers became Part XIII of the Treaty of Versailles; to this day, it remains the charter under which the ILO operates.

The first International Labour Conference was held in Washington DC, in October 1919; the Permanent Secretariat of the Organization—the International Labour Office—was installed in Geneva, Switzerland.

The Constitution of the International Labour Organization

Permanent peace worldwide, justice and humanity were and are the motivations for the International Labour Organization, best expressed in the Preamble to the Constitution. It reads:

Whereas universal and lasting peace can be established only if it is based upon social justice;

And whereas conditions of labour exist involving such injustice, hardship and privation to large numbers of people as to produce unrest so great that the peace and harmony of the world are imperilled; and an improvement of those conditions is urgently required, as for example, by

·     the regulation of the hours of work, including establishment of a maximum working day and week,

·     the regulation of the labour supply,

·     the prevention of unemployment,

·     the provision of an adequate living wage,

·     the protection of the worker against sickness, disease and injury arising out of his employment,

·     the protection of children, young persons and women,

·     the provision for old age and injury,

·     the protection of the interests of workers when employed in countries other than their own,

·     the recognition of the principle of equal remuneration for work of equal value,

·     the recognition of the principle of freedom of association,

·     the organization of vocational and technical education and other measures;

Whereas also the failure of any nation to adopt humane conditions of labour is an obstacle in the way of other nations which desire to improve the conditions in their own countries;

The High Contracting Parties, moved by sentiments of justice and humanity as well as by the desire to secure the permanent peace of the world, and with a view to attaining the objectives set forth in this Preamble, agree to the following Constitution of the International Labour Organisation. ...”

The aims and purposes of the International Labour Organization in a modernized form are embodied in the Philadelphia Declaration, adopted in 1944 at the International Labour Conference in Philadelphia, USA. The Declaration is now an Annex to the Constitution of the ILO. It proclaims the right of all human beings “to pursue both their material well being and their spiritual development in conditions of freedom and dignity, of economic security and equal opportunity”. It further states that “poverty anywhere constitutes a danger to prosperity everywhere”.

The task of the ILO as determined in Article 1 of the Constitution is the promotion of the objects set forth in the Preamble and in the Philadelphia Declaration.

The International Labour Organization and its Structure

The International Labour Organization (ILO) is composed of 173 States. Any member of the United Nations may become a member of the ILO by communicating to the Director-General of the ILO its formal acceptance of the obligations of the Constitution. Non-Member States of the UN may be admitted by a vote of the International Labour Conference (Switzerland is a member of the ILO but not, however, of the UN) (Constitution, Article 1). Representation of Member States at the ILO has a structure which is unique within the UN family. In the UN and in all other specialized UN agencies, representation is only by government personnel: ministers, their deputies, or authorized representatives. However, at the ILO the concerned groups of society are part of the Member States’ representation. Representatives consist of government delegates, generally from the ministry of labour, and delegates representing the employers and the workers of each of the members (Constitution, Article 3). This is the ILO’s fundamental concept of tripartism.

The International Labour Organization consists of:

·     the International Labour Conference, an annual Conference of representatives of all members

·     the Governing Body, composed of 28 government representatives, 14 employers’ representatives, and 14 workers’ representatives

·     the International Labour Office—the permanent secretariat of the organization—which is controlled by the Governing Body.

The International Labour Conference—also called the World Parliament of Labour—meets regularly in June each year with about 2,000 participants, delegates and advisers. The agenda of the Conference includes the discussion and adoption of international agreements (the ILO’s Conventions and Recommendations), the deliberation of special labour themes in order to frame future policies, the adoption of Resolutions directed towards action in Member States and instructions to the Director-General of the Organization on action by the Office, a general discussion and exchange of information and, every second year, the adoption of a biennial programme and budget for the International Labour Office.

The Governing Body is the link between the International Labour Conference of all Member States and the International Labour Office. In three meetings per year, the Governing Body executes its control over the Office by screening work progress, formulating instructions to the Director-General of the Office, adopting the output of Office activity such as Codes of Practice, monitoring and guiding financial affairs, and preparing the agendas for future International Labour Conferences. Membership of the Governing Body is subject to election for a three-year term by the three groups of Conference Representatives—governments, employers and workers. Ten government members of the Governing Body are permanent members as representatives of States of major industrial importance.


All the decision-making mechanisms of the ILO follow a unique structure. All decisions of Member representation are taken by the three groups of representatives, namely by the government representatives, the employers’ representatives and the workers’ representatives of each Member State. Decisions on the substance of work in the Conference Committees on International Conventions and Recommendations, in the Meeting of Experts on Codes of Practice, and in the Advisory Committees on conclusions regarding future labour conditions, are taken by members of the Committees, of which one-third represent governments, one-third represent employers and one-third represent workers. All political, financial and structural decisions are taken by the International Labour Conference (ILC) or the Governing Body, in which 50% of the voting power lies with government representatives (two per Member State in the Conference), 25% with employers’ representatives, and 25% with workers’ representatives (one for each group of a Member State in the Conference). Financial contributions to the Organization are paid solely by the governments, not by the two non-governmental groups; for this reason only governments comprise the Finance Committee.

The Conventions

The International Labour Conference has from 1919 to 1995 adopted 176 Conventions and 183 Recommendations.

Some 74 of the Conventions deal with working conditions, of which 47 are on general conditions of work and 27 are on safety and health in a narrow sense.

The subjects of the Conventions on general conditions of work are: hours of work; minimum age for admission to employment (child labour); night work; medical examination of workers; maternity protection; family responsibilities and work; and part time work. In addition, also relevant to health and safety are ILO Conventions aimed at eliminating discrimination against workers on various grounds (e.g., race, sex, disability), protecting them from unfair dismissal, and compensating them in case of occupational injury or disease.

Of the 27 Conventions on safety and health, 18 were adopted after 1960 (when decolonization led to a large increase in ILO membership) and only nine from 1919 to 1959. The most ratified Convention in this group is the Labour Inspection Convention, 1947 (No. 81), which has been ratified by more than 100 Member States of the ILO (its corollary for agriculture has been ratified by 33 countries).

High numbers of ratification can be one indicator of commitment to improving working conditions. For instance Finland, Norway and Sweden, which are famous for their safety and health record and which are the world’s showcase of safety and health practice, have ratified almost all Conventions in this field adopted after 1960.

The Labour Inspection Conventions are complemented by two further basic standards, the Occupational Safety and Health Convention, 1981 (No. 155) and the Occupational Health Services Convention, 1985 (No. 161).

The Occupational Safety and Health Convention establishes the framework for a national conception of safety and health constituting a model of what the safety and health law of a country should contain. The framework directive of the EU on safety and health follows the structure and contents of the ILO Convention. The EU directive has to be transposed into national legislation by all 15 members of the EU.

The Occupational Health Services Convention deals with the operational structure within enterprises for the implementation of safety and health legislation in companies.

Several Conventions have been adopted regarding branches of economic activity or hazardous substances. These include the Safety and Health in Mines Convention, 1995 (No. 176); the Safety and Health in Construction Convention, 1988 (No. 167); the Occupational Safety and Health (Dock Work) Convention, 1979 (No. 152); the White Lead (Painting) Convention, 1921 (No. 13); the Benzene Convention, 1971 (No. 136); the Asbestos Convention, 1986 (No. 162); the Chemicals Convention, 1990 (No. 170); and the Prevention of Major Industrial Accidents Convention, 1993 (No. 174).

Associated with these norms are: the Working Environment Convention, 1977 (No. 148) (Protection of Workers against occupational Hazards in the Working Environment due to Air Pollution, Noise and Vibration); the Occupational Cancer Convention, 1974 (No. 139); and the list of occupational diseases that is part of the Employment Injury Benefits Convention, 1964 (No. 121). The last revision of the list was adopted by the Conference in 1980 and is discussed in the Chapter Workers’ Compensation, Topics in.

Other safety and health Conventions are: the Marking of Weight Convention, 1929 (No. 27); the Maximum Weight Convention, 1967 (No. 127); the Radiation Protection Convention, 1960 (No. 115); the Guarding of Machinery Convention, 1963 (No. 119); and the Hygiene (Commerce and Offices) Convention, 1964 (No. 120).

During the early period of the ILO, Recommendations were adopted instead of Conventions, such as on anthrax prevention, white phosphorus and lead poisoning. However in recent times Recommendations have tended to complement a Convention by specifying details on implementing its provisions.

Contents of Conventions on Safety and Health

Structure and content of safety and health Conventions follow a general pattern: 

·     scope and definitions

·     obligations of governments

·     consultation with organizations of workers and employers

·     obligations of employers

·     duties of workers

·     rights of workers

·     inspections

·     penalties 

·     final provisions (on conditions for entry into force, registrations of ratifications and denunciation).

A Convention prescribes the task of government or government authorities in regulating the subject matter, highlights obligations of owners of enterprises, specifies the role of workers and their organizations through duties and rights, and closes with provisions for inspection and action against violation of the law. The Convention must of course determine its scope of application, including possible exemptions and exclusions.

Design of Conventions concerning safety and health at work

The Preamble

Each Convention is headed by a preamble referring to the dates and the item on the agenda of the International Labour Conference; other Conventions and documents related to the topic, concerns about the subject justifying the action; underlying causes; cooperation with other international organizations such as WHO and UNEP; the form of the international instrument as a Convention or Recommendation, and the date of the adoption and citation of the Convention.


Wording of the scope is governed by flexibility towards implementation of a Convention. The guiding principle is that the Convention applies to all workers and branches of economic activity. However, in order to facilitate ratification of the Convention by all Member States, the guiding principle is often supplemented by the possibility of partial or total non-application in various fields of activity. A Member State may exclude particular branches of economic activity or particular undertakings in respect of which special problems of a substantial nature arise from the application of certain provisions or of the Convention as a whole. The scope may also foresee step by step implementation of provisions to take into account existing conditions in a country. These exclusions reflect also the availability of national resources for the implementation of new national legislation on safety and health. General conditions of exclusion are that a safe and healthy working environment is otherwise attached by alternative means and that any decision on exclusion is subject to consultation with employers and workers. The scope also includes definitions of terms used in the wording of the international instrument such as branches of economic activity, workers, workplace, employer, regulation, workers’ representative, health, hazardous chemical, major hazard installation, safety report and so forth.

Obligations of governments

Conventions on safety and health establish as a first module the task for a government to elaborate, implement and review a national policy relating to the contents of the Convention. Organizations of employers and workers must be involved in the establishment of the policy and the specification of aims and objectives. The second module concerns the enactment of laws or regulations giving effect to the provisions of the Convention and the enforcement of the law, including the employment of qualified personnel and the provision of support for the staff for inspection and advisory services. Under Articles 19 and 22 of the ILO Constitution, governments are also obliged to report regularly or on request to the International Labour Office on the practice of implementation of the Convention and Recommendation. These obligations are the basis for ILO supervisory procedures.

Consultations with organizations of employers and workers

The importance of involvement of those who are directly associated with the implementation of regulations and the consequences of accidents is undoubted. Successful safety and health practice is based on collaboration and on incorporation of opinion and good will of the persons concerned. A Convention therefore provides that the government authorities must consult employers and workers when considering the exclusion of installations from legislation for step-by-step implementation of provisions and in the development of a national policy on the subject matter of the Convention.

Obligations of employers

The responsibility for the execution of legal requirements within an enterprise lies on the owner of an enterprise or his or her representative. Legal rights on workers’ participation in the decision-making process do not alter the primary responsibility of the employer. The obligations of employers as stated in Conventions include provision of safe and healthy working procedures; the purchase of safe machinery and equipment; the use of non-hazardous substances in work processes; the monitoring and assessment of airborne chemicals at the workplace; the provision of health surveillance of workers and of first aid; the reporting of accidents and diseases to the competent authority; the training of workers; the provision of information regarding hazards related to work and their prevention; cooperation in discharging their responsibilities with workers and their representatives.

Duties of workers

Since the 1980s, Conventions have stated that workers have a duty to cooperate with their employers in the application of safety and health measures and to comply with all procedures and practices relating to safety and health at work. The duty of workers may include the reporting to supervisors of any situation which could present a special risk, or the fact that a worker has removed himself/herself from the workplace in case of imminent and serious danger to his or her life or health.

Rights of workers

A variety of special rights of workers has been stated in ILO Conventions on safety and health. In general a worker is afforded the right to information on hazardous working conditions, on the identity of chemicals used at work and on chemical safety data sheets; the right to be trained in safe working practices; the right to consultation by the employer on all aspects of safety and health associated with the work; and the right to undergo medical surveillance free of charge and with no loss of earnings. Some of these Conventions also recognize the rights of workers’ representatives, particularly regarding consultation and information. These rights are reinforced by other ILO Conventions on freedom of association, collective bargaining, workers’ representatives and protection against dismissal.

Specific articles in Conventions adopted in 1981 and later deal with the worker’s right to remove himself/herself from danger at his or her workplace. A 1993 Convention (Prevention of Major Industrial Accidents, 1993 (No. 174)) recognized the worker’s right to notify the competent authority of potential hazards which may be capable of generating a major accident.


Conventions on safety and health express the needs for the government to provide appropriate inspection services to supervise the application of the measures taken to implement the Convention. The inspection requirement is supplemented by the obligation to provide the inspection services with the resources necessary for the accomplishment of their task.


Conventions on safety and health often call for national regulation regarding the imposition of penalties in case of non-compliance with legal obligations. Article 9 (2) of the framework Occupational Safety and Health Convention, 1981 (No 155) states: “The enforcement system shall provide for adequate penalties for violations of the laws and regulations.” These penalties may be administrative, civil or criminal in nature.

The Labour Inspection Convention, 1947 (No. 81)

The Labour Inspection Convention of 1947 (No. 81) calls on States to maintain a system of labour inspection in industrial workplaces. It fixes government obligations in regard to inspection and sets out rights, duties and powers of inspectors. This instrument is complemented by two Recommendations (Nos. 81 and 82) and by the Protocol of 1995, which extends its scope of application to the non-commercial services sector (such as the public service and state-run enterprises). The Labour Inspection (Agriculture) Convention, 1969 (No. 129), contains provisions very similar to Convention No. 81 for the agricultural sector. ILO Maritime Conventions and Recommendations also address inspection of seafarers’ working and living conditions.

The government has to establish an independent qualified corps of inspectors in sufficient number. The inspectorate must be fully equipped to provide good services. Legal provision of penalties for violation of safety and health regulations are an obligation of the government. Inspectors have the duty to enforce legal requirements, and to provide technical information and advice to employers and workers regarding effective means of complying with legal provisions.

Inspectors are to report gaps in regulations to authorities and submit annual reports on their work. Governments are called on to compile annual reports giving statistics on inspections done.

Rights and powers of inspectors are laid down, such as the right to enter workplaces and premises, to carry out examinations and tests, to initiate remedial measures, to issue orders on alteration of the installation and immediate execution. They have also the right to issue citations and institute legal proceedings in case of a violation of an employer’s duties.

The Convention contains provisions on the conduct of inspectors, such as having no financial interest in undertakings under supervision, no disclosure of trade secrets and, of particular importance, confidentiality in case of complaints by workers, which means giving no hint to the employer about the identity of complainant.

Promotion of progressive development by Conventions

Work on Conventions tries to mirror law and practice in Member States of the Organization. However, there are cases where new elements are introduced which have so far not been the subject of widespread national regulation. The initiative may come from delegates, during the discussion of a norm in a Conference Committee; where justified, it may be proposed by the Office in the first draft of a new instrument. Here are two examples:

(1)The right of a worker to remove himself or herself from work that poses an imminent and serious danger to his or her life or health.

Normally people consider that it is a natural right to leave a workplace in case of danger to life. However this action may cause damage to materials, machinery or products—and can sometimes be very costly. As installations get more sophisticated and expensive, the worker might be blamed for having unnecessarily removed himself or herself, with attempts to make him or her liable for the damage. During discussion in a Conference Committee on the Safety and Health Convention a proposal was made to protect the worker against recourse in such cases. The Conference Committee considered the proposal for hours and finally found wording to protect the worker which was acceptable to the majority of the Committee.

Article 13 of Convention No. 155 thus reads: “A worker who has removed himself from a work situation which he has reasonable justification to believe presents an imminent and serious danger to his life or health shall be protected from undue consequences in accordance with national conditions and practice”. The “undue consequences” include, of course, dismissal and disciplinary action as well as liability. Several years later, the situation was reconsidered in a new context. During the discussions at the Conference of the Construction Convention in 1987-88, the workers’ group tabled an amendment to introduce the right of a worker to remove himself or herself in case of imminent and serious danger. The proposal was finally accepted by the majority of Committee members under the condition that it was combined with a worker’s duty to immediately inform his or her supervisor about the action.

The same provision has been introduced in the Chemicals Convention, 1990 (No. 170); a similar text is included in the Safety and Health in Mines Convention, 1995 (No. 176). This means that countries which have ratified the Safety and Health Convention or the Convention on Construction, Chemical Safety or Safety and Health in Mines must provide in national law for the right of a worker to remove himself or herself and to be protected against “undue consequences”. This will probably sooner or later lead to application of this right for workers in all sectors of economic activity. This newly recognized right for workers has in the meantime been incorporated in the basic EU Directive on Safety and Health Organization of 1989; all Member States of the EU were to have incorporated the right in their legislation by the end of 1992.

(2)The right for a worker to have a medical examination instead of mandatory medical examinations.

For many years national legislation had required medical examinations for workers in special occupations as a prerequisite for assignment to or continuation of work. Over time, a long list of mandatory medical examinations before assignment and at periodic intervals had been prescribed. This well-meaning intention is increasingly turning into a burden, however, as there may be too many medical examinations administered to one person. Should the examinations be recorded in a health passport of a worker for lifelong testimony to ill-health, as practised in some countries, the medical examination in the end could become a tool for selection into unemployment. A young worker having recorded a long list of medical examinations in his or her life due to exposure to hazardous substances may not find an employer ready to give him or her a job. The doubt may be too strong that this worker may sooner or later be absent too often because of illness.

A second consideration has been that any medical examination is an intrusion into a person’s private life and therefore a worker should be the one to decide on medical procedures.

The International Labour Office proposed, therefore, to introduce in the Night Work Convention, 1990 (No. 171) the right of a worker to have a medical examination instead of calling for mandatory surveillance. This idea won broad support and was finally reflected in Article 4 of the Night Work Convention by the International Labour Conference in 1990, which reads:

1.At their request, workers shall have the right to undergo a health assessment without charge and to receive advice on how to reduce or avoid health problems associated with their work: (a) before taking up an assignment as a night worker; (b) at regular intervals during such an assignment; (c) if they experience health problems during such an assignment which are not caused by factors other than the performance of the night work.

2.With the exception of a finding of unfitness for night work, the findings of such assessments shall not be transmitted to others without the worker’s consent and shall not be used to their detriment.

It is difficult for many health professionals to follow this new conception. However, they should realize that a person’s right to determine whether to undergo a medical examination is an expression of contemporary notions of human rights. The provision has been already taken up by national legislation, for example in the 1994 Act on Working Time in Germany, which makes reference to the Convention. And more importantly, the EU Framework Directive on Safety and Health follows this model in its provisions on health surveillance.

Functions of the International Labour Office

The functions of the International Labour Office as laid down in Article 10 of the Constitution include the collection and distribution of information on all subjects related to the international adjustment of conditions of industrial life and labour with special emphasis on future international labour standards, the preparation of documents on the various items of the agenda for the meeting of the ILC (especially the preparatory work on contents and wording of Conventions and Recommendations), the provision of advisory services to governments, employers’ organizations and workers’ organizations of member states related to labour legislation and administrative practice, including systems of inspection, and the edition and dissemination of publications of international interest dealing with problems of industry and employment.

Like any ministry of labour, the International Labour Office is made up of bureaus, departments and branches concerned with the various fields of labour policy. Two special institutes were established to support the Office and Member States: the International Institute for Labour Studies at ILO headquarters, and the International Training Centre of the ILO in Turin, Italy.

A Director-General, elected by the Governing Body for a five-year term, and three Deputy Director-Generals, appointed by the Director-General, govern (as of 1996) 13 departments; 11 bureaus at headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland; two liaison offices with international organizations; five regional departments, in Africa, the Americas, Asia and the Pacific, the Arab States, and Europe, with 35 area and branch offices and 13 multi-disciplinary teams (a group of professionals of various disciplines who provide advisory services in Member States of a subregion).

The Working Conditions and Environment Department is the Department in which the bulk of safety and health work is carried out. It comprises a staff of about 70 professionals and general service personnel of 25 nationalities, including professional experts in the multi-disciplinary teams. As of 1996, it has two branches: the Conditions of Work and Welfare Facilities Branch (CONDI/T) and the Occupational Safety and Health Branch (SEC/HYG).

The Safety and Health Information Services Section of SEC/HYG maintains the International Occupational Safety and Health Information Centre (CIS) and the Occupational Safety and Health Information Support Systems Section. The work on this edition of the Encyclopaedia is housed in the Support Systems Section.

A special unit of the Department was established in 1991: the International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour (IPEC). The new programme executes, jointly with Member States in all regions of the world, national programmes of activity against child labour. The programme is financed by special contributions of several Member States, such as Germany, Spain, Australia, Belgium, the United States, France and Norway.

In addition, in the course of the review of the ILO’s major safety and health programme established in the 1970s, the International Programme for the Improvement of Working Conditions and the Environment—known under its French acronym PIACT—the International Labour Conference adopted in 1984 the PIACT Resolution. In principle, the Resolution constitutes a framework of operation for all action by the ILO and by Member States of the Organization in the field of safety and health:

·     Work should take place in a safe and healthy working environment.

·     Conditions of work should be consistent with workers’ well-being and human dignity.

·     Work should offer real possibilities for personal achievement, self-fulfilment, and service to society.

Publications concerning workers’ health are published in the Occupational Safety and Health Series, such as Occupational Exposure Limits for Airborne Toxic Substances, a listing of national exposure limits of 15 Member States; or the International Directory of Occupational Safety and Health Services and Institutions, which compiles information on the safety and health administrations of Member States; or Protection of Workers from Power Frequency Electric and Magnetic Fields, a practical guide to provide information on the possible effects of electric and magnetic fields on human health and on procedures for higher standards of safety.

Typical products of the safety and health work of the ILO are the codes of practice, which constitute a kind of model set of regulations on safety and health in many fields of industrial work. These codes are often elaborated in order to facilitate the ratification and application of ILO Conventions. For example, the Code of Practice on Prevention of Major Industrial  Accidents, whose objective is to provide guidance in the setting up of an administrative, legal and technical system for the control of major hazard installations in order to avoid major disasters. The Code of Practice on Recording and Notification of Occupational Accidents and Diseases aims at a harmonized practice in the collection of data and the establishment of statistics on accidents and diseases and associated events and circumstances in order to stimulate preventive action and to facilitate comparative work between Member States (these are just two examples from a long list). Within the field of information exchange two major events are organized by the Safety and Health Branch of the ILO: the World Congress on Occupational Safety and Health, and the ILO International Pneumoconiosis Conference (which is now called The International Conference on Occupational Respiratory Diseases).

The World Congress is organized every three or four years jointly with the International Social Security Association (ISSA) and a national safety and health organization in one of the ILO Member States. World Congresses have been held since the 1950s. Some 2,000 to 3,000 experts from more than 100 countries meet at these congresses in order to exchange information on good practices in safety and health and on modern trend setting, and to establish relations with colleagues from other countries and other parts of the world.

The Pneumoconiosis Conference has been organized by the ILO since the 1930s; the next is planned for 1997 in Kyoto, Japan. One of the outstanding outputs of these conferences is the ILO International Classification of Radiographs of Pneumoconiosis.

The ILO’s technical cooperation in the field of safety and health has many facets. Several projects assisted Member States in preparing new legislation on safety and health and in strengthening their inspection services. In other countries, support has been provided for the creation of safety and health institutes in order to promote research work and develop training programmes and activities. Special projects were designed and executed on mine safety and chemical safety, including the establishment of major hazard control systems. These projects may be targeted towards one Member State, or to a regional group of countries. The tasks at ILO headquarters include the assessment of needs, project development and design, identification of financial support from international funds and national aid programmes, selection and provision of technical expertise, procurement of equipment and planning, and the organization and implementation of study tours and fellowship programmes.

Standard setting, research, collection and dissemination of information and technical cooperation reflect the operational arms of the ILO. In active partnership with the Organization’s tripartite membership these activities reinforce the struggle for the goal of social justice and peace in the world.

This is why in 1969, at the 50th anniversary of the Organization, the work and achievements of the International Labour Organization were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.


A country ratifying an ILO Convention pledges to “take such action as may be necessary to make effective” its provisions (ILO Constitution, article 19(5)). There are several ways that other countries and workers’ and employers’ organizations (but not individuals) can take action to encourage a government to respect the obligations it has undertaken. An organization need only send a letter containing sufficient information to the Director-General, International Labour Office, 4 route des Morillons, 1211 Geneva 22, Switzerland (fax number 41-22-798-8685). The procedures described here are complemented by the ILO’s work to promote international labour standards, such as seminars and workshops carried out by regional advisers.

Article 22 procedures. A government must submit reports on the application of Conventions it has ratified to the International Labour Office (Article 22). The government is also bound to provide copies of those reports to the most representative organizations of employers and workers in the country (Article 23). These organizations can make comments on the reports and provide additional information on the application of an instrument. An independent Committee of Experts on the Application of Conventions and Recommendations (CEARC) examines the reports and any comments made, and it may then address comments to governments to recommend changes in law or practice or to note cases of progress. The CEARC in turn submits its report each year to the tripartite International Labour Conference. The Conference sets up an Applications Committee, which addresses selected cases before reporting to the plenary. The Conference report appeals to governments to respect the obligations they have undertaken by ratifying ILO Conventions and sometimes urges them to accept “direct contacts” missions, during which solutions can be sought in consultation with the government and workers’ and employers’ organizations in the country.

Article 24 procedures. Under this article of the ILO Constitution, any “industrial association of employers or of workers” may make a representation alleging that an ILO Member State has failed to observe any ILO Convention to which it is a party. To be receivable, a representation must come from such an organization, be in writing, refer to Article 24 of the ILO Constitution and indicate in which respect the Member State concerned has failed to secure the effective observance within its jurisdiction of a Convention (identified by name and/or number) it has ratified. The ILO Governing Body may then set up a committee to examine the representation, communicate it to the government for comment and prepare a report, which the Governing Body can order to be published. It may also lead to a direct contacts mission. Where a government has not acted on the report of an Article 24 representation, the Governing Body may initiate the complaint procedure provided by Article 26 of the ILO Constitution.

Article 26 procedures. This article of the ILO Constitution permits complaints to be filed with the International Labour Office against a Member State which has allegedly failed to secure the observance of a Convention it has ratified. A complaint may be lodged by another Member State having also ratified the same Convention, by a delegate (government, employer or worker) to the International Labour Conference or by the Governing Body of the ILO. The Governing Body may appoint a Commission of Inquiry to consider the complaint and report back to it. The Commission of Inquiry’s findings of fact and recommendations are then published. The recommendations may include a direct contacts mission. In case of disagreement as regards the recommendations of the Commission of Inquiry, a complaint may be referred to the International Court of Justice, whose decision is final.

Freedom of association procedures. With freedom of association and the right to engage in collective bargaining at the heart of membership of the ILO, it has established special procedures to deal with complaints alleging infringements of these rights. A Governing Body Committee on Freedom of Association examines complaints made by national or international organizations of employers or workers against any ILO Member State, even when it has not ratified the two main ILO Conventions on freedom of association and collective bargaining. This Committee can also recommend that a government accept a direct contacts mission to assist it in ensuring respect for these basic principles.

Effect. While the ILO has no police force or labour inspectorate empowered to order a workplace to be made safer, governments are sensitive to pleas that they fulfil the obligations they have undertaken in ratifying ILO Conventions. The public pressure brought to bear by use of the ILO procedures has in a number of cases led to changes in law and practice, and thus through them to an improvement of working conditions.

Anne Trebilcock


Lawrence D. Eicher

The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) is a worldwide federation of national standards bodies at present comprising the national standards bodies of 120 countries as of 1996. The object of ISO is to promote the development of standards in the world with a view to facilitating international exchange of goods and services and to developing mutual cooperation in the sphere of intellectual, scientific, technological and economic activity. The results of ISO technical work are published as International Standards.

The scope of ISO is not limited to any particular branch; it covers all standardization fields except standards for electrical and electronic engineering, which are the responsibility of the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC).

ISO brings together the interests of producers, users (including consumers), governments and the scientific community in the preparation of International Standards.

ISO work is carried out through some 2,800 technical bodies. More than 100,000 experts from all parts of the world are engaged in this work which, to date, has resulted in the publication of over 10,000 International Standards, representing some 188,000 pages of concise reference data in English and French.

Origin and Membership

International standardization started in the electrotechnical field some 90 years ago. While some attempts were made in the 1930s to develop International Standards in other technical fields, it was not until ISO was created that an international organization devoted to standardization as a whole came into existence.

Following a meeting in London in 1946, delegates from 25 countries decided to create a new international organization “whose object shall be to facilitate the international coordination and unification of industrial standards”. The new organization, ISO, began to function officially on 23 February 1947.

A member body of ISO is the national body “most representative of standardization in its country”. It follows that only one such body for each country is accepted for membership in ISO. Member bodies are entitled to participate and exercise full voting rights on any technical committee of ISO, are eligible for membership in the Council and have a seat in the General Assembly. By September 1995 the number of member bodies was 83. More than 70% of ISO member bodies are governmental institutions or organizations incorporated by public law. The remainder have close links with the public administration in their respective countries.

A correspondent member is normally an organization in a developing country which does not yet have its own national standards body. Correspondent members do not take an active part in the technical work, but are kept fully informed of it. Normally, a correspondent member becomes a member body after a few years. Nearly all the present correspondent members are governmental institutions. By September 1995 the number of correspondent members was 24.

A third category, subscriber membership, has been established for countries with smaller-scale economies. These subscriber members pay reduced membership fees that nevertheless allow them to maintain contact with international standardization. By September 1995, the number of subscriber members was eight.

Basic data on each ISO member body are given in the publication ISO Membership.

Technical Work

The technical work of ISO is carried out through technical committees (TC). The decision to set up a technical committee is taken by the Technical Management Board, which also approves the scope of the committee. Within this scope, the committee determines its own programme of work.

The technical committees may, in turn, create subcommittees (SC) and working groups (WG) to cover different aspects of the work. Each technical committee or subcommittee has a secretariat assigned to an ISO member body. At the end of 1995 there were in existence 185 technical committees, 611 subcommittees and 2,022 working groups.

A proposal to introduce a new field of technical activity into the ISO working programme normally comes from a member body, but it may also originate from some other international organization. Since resources are limited, priorities must be established. Therefore, all new proposals are submitted for consideration by the ISO member bodies. If accepted, either the new work will be referred to the appropriate existing technical committee or a new committee will be created.

Each member body interested in a subject for which a technical committee has been authorized has the right to be represented on that committee. Detailed rules of procedure are given in the ISO/IEC Directives.

International Standards

An International Standard is the result of an agreement between the member bodies of ISO. It may be used as such or implemented through incorporation into national standards of different countries.

An important first step towards an International Standard takes the form of a committee draft (CD), a document circulated for study within the technical committee. This document must pass through a number of stages before it can be accepted as an International Standard. This procedure is designed to ensure that the final result is acceptable to as many countries as possible. When agreement is finally reached within the technical committee, the draft proposal is sent to the central secretariat for registration as a draft International Standard (DIS); the DIS is then circulated to all member bodies for voting. In many countries, the DIS is made available for public enquiry, thereby ensuring the widest possible consultations. If 75% of the votes cast are in favour of the DIS, it is accepted for further processing as a Final Draft International Standard (FDIS) which is circulated to all member bodies for formal adoption by ISO. Again, 75% of the votes cast must be in favour of the FDIS in order for the International Standard to be published. Normally the fundamental technical issues are resolved at the technical committee level. However, the member body voting procedure provides assurance that no important objections have been overlooked.

The greater part of the work is done by correspondence, and meetings are convened only when thoroughly justified. Each year some 10,000 working documents are circulated. Most standards require periodic revision. Several factors combine to render a standard out of date: technological evolution, new methods and materials, and new quality and safety requirements. To take account of these factors, ISO has established the general rule that all ISO standards should be reviewed every five years. On occasion it is necessary to revise a standard earlier.

A full list of all published ISO standards is given in the ISO Catalogue.

ISO Work in the Field of Occupational Safety

Every ISO International Standard is prepared with concern for safety; the safety factor is an integral part of the work of ISO.

The more than 10,000 International Standards already published by ISO cover a wide spectrum, from aerospace, aircraft and agriculture to building, fire tests, containers, medical equipment, mining equipment, computer languages, the environment, personal safety, ergonomics, pesticides, nuclear energy and so on.

Many International Standards are easily recognized as important in preventing occupational risks: examples are the basic symbol for signifying ionizing radiation or radioactive materials (ISO 361), safety colours and signs (ISO 3864) and the industrial safety helmet (ISO 3873) specified for medium protection in mining, quarrying, shipbuilding, structural engineering and forestry, and so on. Other International Standards are not so easily identified as being directly relevant, but have an equal impact on the prevention of occupational accidents and diseases; one example is ISO 2631, Evaluation of human exposure to whole body vibration, published in three parts, which grades the “reduced comfort boundary”, the “fatigue-decreased proficiency boundary” and the “exposure limit” according to varying levels of vibration frequency, acceleration magnitude and exposure time, and according to the direction of vibration relative to recognized axes of the human body. This Standard, like all others, is continuously updated in the light of research and experience, and relates to such forms of transport as dumpers, tractors, excavators and many other vehicles and worksites.

The ISO technical committees listed in table 23.2  are among the most prominent in the work for safety and accidents and disease prevention.

Table 23.2 ISO technical committees most concerned with prevention of occupational accidents and diseases



Typical example of ISO standard


Technical drawings, product definition and related documentation

ISO/DIS 11604

Technical product documentation-Data sheets for drawing materials and equipment and related documentation


Equipment for fire protection and fire-fighting

ISO 3941

Classification of fires


Tractors and machinery for agriculture and forestry

ISO 3776

Tractors for agriculture-Seat belt anchorages


Paints and varnishes

ISO 3679

Paints, varnishes, petroleum and related products-Determination of flashpoint-Rapid equilibrium method



ISO 4872

Acoustics-Measurement of airborne noise emitted by construction equipment intended for outdoor use-Method for determining compliance with noise limits


Welding and allied processes

ISO/DIS 10882-2

Health and safety in welding and allied processes-Sampling of airborne particles and gases in the operator’s breathing zone-Part 2: Sampling of gases


Building construction

ISO/TR 9527

Building construction -Needs of disabled people in buildings -Design guidelines


Materials, equipment and offshore structures for petroleum and natural gas industries

ISO 10418

Petroleum and natural gas industries-Offshore production platforms-Analysis, design, installation and testing of basic surface safety systems



ISO 3155

Stranded wire ropes for mine hoisting-Fibre components-Characteristics and tests


Nuclear energy

ISO 1709

Nuclear energy-Fissile materials-Principles of criticality, safety in storing, handling and processing



ISO 5149

Mechanical refrigerating systems used for cooling and heating-Safety requirements


Fire safety

ISO 1716

Building materials-Determination of calorific potential


Personal safety-Protective clothing and equipment

ISO 2801

Clothing for protection against heat and fire-General recommendations for users and for those in charge of such users



ISO 10245-1

Cranes-Limiting and indicating devices-Part 1: General


Bases for design of structures

ISO 2394

General principles on reliability for structures


Continuous mechanical handling equipment

ISO 1819

Continuous mechanical handling equipment-Safety code-General rules


Mechanical vibration and shock

ISO 2631-1

Evaluation of human exposure to whole-body vibration-Part 1: General requirements


Industrial trucks

ISO 1074

Counterbalanced fork-lift trucks-Stability tests


Compressors, pneumatic tools and pneumatic machines

ISO 5388

Stationary air compressors-Safety rules and code of practice


Air quality

ISO 8518

Workplace air-Determination of particulate lead and lead compounds-Flame atomic absorption spectrometric method



ISO 7243

Hot environments-Estimation of the heat stress on worker, based on the WBGT index (wet bulb globe temperature)


Safety of machinery

ISO/TR 12100-1

Safety of machinery-Basic concepts, general principles for design-Part 1: Basic terminology, methodology

These technical committees and others have prepared or are preparing International Standards concerned with occupational risks in such areas as building construction sites, factories, docks, agriculture and forestry, nuclear installations, handling of materials and personal protective clothing and equipment.

The field of building provides a very clear example of the intensive concern for accident and disease prevention in the work of ISO. Of the more than 50 ISO technical committees dealing with some aspect of building or building materials, ten deal with the problems of the working environment. The physical factors in the building field cover aspects such as personal safety, vibration and shock, noise, plant and equipment, earth-moving machinery, cranes and lifting devices, and ergonomics. The chemical factors cover air quality, paints and varnishes, protection of welding workers, and protective clothing and equipment.

ISO TC 127 (Earth-moving machinery) has set up a subcommittee to deal specifically with safety requirements and human factors in respect of all the current basic types of earth-moving machinery such as tractors, loaders, dumpers, tractor scrapers, excavators and graders. Standards are already in existence for safe access to driving cabs via steps, ladders, walkways and platforms, and the dimensions of cabs have been established for both large and small operators, sitting or standing and in arctic clothing or not, as appropriate.

Sitting positions and the sizes and shapes of seats for different operators are also the subject of International Standards. Sitting positions are now being related to areas of comfort and to reach for both hand and foot controls, and Standards have been prepared to determine the field of view available to operators of earth-moving machines, based upon determination of the shape, size and position of areas of invisibility caused by obstructing parts of the machines.

To prevent machines from crushing their operators in the event of accidental overturning, roll-over protective structures (ROPS) have been developed and standardized. Falling rocks, trees and parts of buildings in the process of demolition can prove hazardous, so falling-object protective structures (FOPS) have been standardized so as to minimize the possibility of injury to the operator.

ISO 7000, Graphical symbols for use on equipment—Index and synopsis, provides a synopsis of several hundred internationally agreed graphic symbols to be placed on equipment or parts of equipment of any kind in order to instruct the persons handling the equipment as to its use and operation.

ISO work in the building field is both intensive and extensive, just as it is in other fields covered by ISO. (The scope of ISO includes most industrial, agricultural and maritime activities except the electrotechnical field, which is handled by the International Electrotechnical Commission, and pharmaceutical products, handled by the World Health Organization.)

On the factory floor, International Standards take on a special meaning as persons seeking work migrate from one country to another and often to jobs where they cannot speak or read the local language. Easily recognized graphic symbols for controls on machinery that conform to International Standards are vital here as in the building industry; so are standardized locations for foot and hand controls and International Standards for guards to moving parts.

An ISO safety code for compressors covers a wide range of safety and environmental factors, such as the prevention of oil inhalation and the control of toxic oil inhibitors, the prevention of oil coke ignition and of crankcase explosion, and the use of relief and safety valves.

The safety of continuous mechanical handling equipment is the subject of nearly 40 International Standards. They cover such aspects as safety and safety codes for the different kinds of equipment, such as belt conveyors, vibrating feeders, overhead chain conveyors, hydraulic conveyors, pneumatic handling equipment, and roller and screw conveyors.

In the field of agriculture and forestry, ISO has developed important International Standards that protect the worker. Anchorages for seat belts for farm tractors are the subject of a well known standard that is making the import-export trade easier for manufacturers as it is implemented, replacing a plethora of national standards and regulations on the subject. ISO standards even provide rules for presenting operators’ manuals and technical publications for agricultural tractors and machines, making them easy to read and understand.

On the docks the worker is protected by International Standards that determine the stability of cranes and mobile cranes in action and determine the effect of wind loads on crane structures. Other Standards cover indicators and safety devices that will operate in the event of an operator’s misjudgement. Still others cover indicators such as wind gauges, overvoltage annunciators and mass, slope and slew indicators and “automatic cut-off”, such as derricking limiters, load-lifting capacity limiters and slack rope stops. The Standards produced and in preparation should not only assist operators in their work, but enhance the working environment by inspiring confidence in all works personnel moving under and around cranage. A related International Standard provides discard criteria in relation to wear, corrosion, deformation and wire strand breaks, and is intended to guide competent persons involved in the maintenance and examination of cranes and lifting appliances. New Standards under development include out-of-service anchoring devices, maintenance, condition monitoring, safe use and safety signs.

Safety for the worker and others at or near nuclear installations is covered by a number of International Standards, and the work continues in this area. Subjects covered are methods for testing exposure meters and dosimeters, a test for contents leakage and radiation leakage, and the general principles for sampling airborne radioactive materials.

International Standards for protective clothing and equipment are the responsibility of ISO TC 94. In addition to the Standard for industrial safety helmets, it has developed a standardized vocabulary for personal eye-protectors, established utilization and transmittance requirements for infrared filters for eye protectors, and general recommendations for users and those in charge of users of clothing for protection against heat and fire.

The production and use of ISO International Standards such as these, produced through worldwide cooperation, have unquestionably improved the quality of the workplace.


Dick J. Meertens

Raison d’être and Historical Perspective

The aim of the ISSA is to cooperate, at the international level, in the defence, promotion and development of social security throughout the world, basically through its technical and administrative improvement. The prevention of social risks is today considered to form an integral part of social security.

The ISSA had an early forerunner, the Permanent International Committee on Social Insurance (CPIAS), which at first was concerned with the risk of accidents and in 1891 extended its scope to social insurance in general. In 1927, the Tenth Session of the International Labour Conference adopted Convention No. 24, known as the Sickness Insurance (Industry) Convention, and Convention No. 25, known as the Sickness Insurance (Agriculture) Convention. The ISSA was founded at this time, upon the initiative of the International Labour Office, with the aim of gaining support from experts in a number of European countries for the ratification of these instruments. Until 1947 the organization was known as the International Conference of Sickness Insurance Funds and Mutual Benefit Societies (CIMAS).

The concept of prevention already existed in the minds of the CIMAS pioneers when they included this notion in the fundamental policy principles adopted by their Constituent Assembly. It was not until 1954, however, that the Association became actively involved in occupational safety and health activities, through the establishment of its Permanent Committee on Prevention of Occupational Risks. It should be noted that, in this respect, the role of the ISSA is complementary to that of the ILO. The ISSA’s experts may not only be instrumental in bringing about ILO Conventions and Recommendations, but are also called upon to implement them.

Although prevention programmes are obviously most prevalent in the field of occupational safety and health, over the last two decades prevention has gained increasing importance in other branches of social security as well, particularly as regards sickness insurance and, more recently, unemployment insurance, as may be seen from the activities of ISSA Permanent Committees. Over the last decade, activities aimed at preventing employment accidents and occupational diseases have undergone considerable changes in modern industrialized societies, as elaborated below concerning the “Prevention Concept” of the Association.

Structure and Membership

Addresses of the ISSA International Sections

ISSA International Section for Research
Secretariat of the Section:
c/o Institut National de Recherche et de Sécurité (INRS)
30 rue Olivier Noyer, F-75680 Paris Cedex 14
Tel. +33-1 40 44 30 00; Fax +33-1 40 44 30 99

ISSA International Section on Information
Secretariat of the Section:
c/o Association nationale pour la prévention des accidents du travail (ANPAT)
88 rue Gachard, Boîte 4, B-1050 Bruxelles
Tel. +32-2 648 03 37; Fax +32-2 648 68 67

ISSA International Section for the Mining Industry
Secretariat of the Section:
Vedeckovyzkumny Uhelny Ustav
(Scientific Research Institute for Coal Mining)
Pikartska ul. 7
CS-716 07 Ostrava Radvanice
Czech Republic
Tel. +42-69 623 20 48; Fax +42-69 623 21 76

ISSA International Section for the Chemical Industry
Secretariat of the Section:
c/o Berufsgenossenschaft der chemischen Industrie
Kurfürsten-Anlage 62
D-69115 Heidelberg
Tel. +49-6221 52 34 98; Fax +49-6221 52 33 23

ISSA International Section for the Iron and Metal Industry
Secretariat of the Section:
c/o Allgemeine Unfallversicherungsanstalt
Adalbert-Stifter-Straße 65, A-1200 Wien
Tel. +43-1 33 111 558; Fax +43-1 33 111 469

ISSA International Section for Electricity
Secretariat of the Section:
c/o Berufsgenossenschaft der Feinmechanik und Elektrotechnik
Gustav-Heinemann-Ufer 130, D-50968 Köln
Tel. +49-221 37 78 1; Fax +49-221 37 78 134

ISSA International Section for the Construction Industry
Secretariat of the Section:
c/o Organisme professionnel de prévention du bâtiment et des travaux publics (OPPBTP)
Tour Amboise, 204 Rond-Point du Pont-de-Sèvres
F-92516 Boulogne-Billancourt
Tel. +33-1 46 09 26 54; Fax +33-1 46 09 27 40

ISSA International Section for Agriculture
Secretariat of the Section:
c/o Bundesverband der landwirtschaftlichen
Weissensteinstraße 72
D-34131 Kassel-Wilhelmshöhe,
Tel. +49-561 93 59 401; Fax +49-561 93 59 414

ISSA International Section for Machine Safety
Secretariat of the Section:
c/o Berufsgenossenschaft Nahrungsmittel und Gaststätten
Dynamostraße 7-9
D-68165 Mannheim
Tel. +49-621 44 56 22 13; Fax +49-621 44 56 21 25

ISSA International Section for Education and Training
Secretariat of the Section:
c/o Caisse régionale d’assurance maladie
(CRAM— Ile-de-France)
17-19 place de l’Argonne
F-75019 Paris
Tel. +33-1 40 05 38 02; Fax +33-1 40 05 38 84

ISSA International Section for Health Services
Secretariat of the Section:
c/o Berufsgenossenschaft für Gesundheitsdienst und Wohlfahrtspflege
Pappelallee 35-37
D-22089 Hamburg
Tel. +49-40 20 20 70; Fax +49-40 20 20 75 25

The ISSA is an international organization of services, institutions or bodies administering one or more branches of social security or mutual benefit societies. It has its offices at the headquarters of the ILO in Geneva.

The Association has two categories of membership—affiliate membership, for government departments, central institutions and national federations of institutions administering social security or one of its branches at the national level, and associate membership, open to national non-profit institutions, such as research and safety and health institutions, the aims of which are compatible with those of the Association, but which are not qualified to become affiliate members.

In 1995 the ISSA had over 240 affiliate member organizations in 117 countries, and 95 associate member institutions in 35 countries, for a total membership of some 338 organizations in 127 countries around the world. More than 200 member institutions are directly involved in insurance against employment accidents and occupational diseases and/or in the prevention of accidents and the promotion of safety and health.

As can be seen from the organigramme (figure 23.4), all ISSA activities are directed by the General Assembly, which is comprised of delegates appointed by member institutions and is sometimes described as the world parliament of social security. The Council, which consists of one delegate from each country having affiliate member institutions, meets regularly on the occasion of the Association’s triennial General Assemblies. The Bureau, which together with the Council gives effect to the decisions taken by the General Assembly, meets twice a year and is composed of 30 elected members and the Chairpersons of the Permanent Committees.

Figure 23.4 Structure of the International Social Security Association (ISSA)


The Association has three main programmes:

1. Regional activities. These are aimed at serving the special needs of member institutions in the various parts of the world. For this purpose the ISSA has regional offices for Africa, the Americas, Asia and the Pacific and Europe situated in Abidjan, Buenos Aires, Manila and Paris respectively.

2. Research and documentation. Worldwide developments and trends in social security are monitored and analysed from the perspective of national and cross-national research through a network of correspondents. The Association maintains the largest social security library in the world and collaborates with the ILO’s Social Security Department in providing timely social security information.

3. Technical activities. Ten Permanent Committees and a Study Group each deal with a specific branch or aspect of social security. They investigate sector-specific problems such as those relating to health insurance, pension insurance, unemployment insurance, family protection, rehabilitation, organization and methods, actuarial and statistical issues.

The Permanent Committee on Insurance against Employment Accidents and Occupational Diseases and the Permanent Committee on Prevention of Occupational Risks with its 11 International Sections on Accident Prevention are of particular importance in fostering safety and health.

The Permanent Committee on Prevention of Occupational Risks

Two different and complementary aspects (i.e., promotional activities related to prevention, and technical activities) fall within the scope of competence of this Committee, which together with its Advisory Council monitors worldwide developments and undertakes surveys and studies on overall problem areas.

The Committee is charged with undertaking at the international level the following types of activities for the prevention of occupational risks:

·     exchange of information and experience

·     organization of international meetings and World Congresses

·     implementation of surveys and promotion of research in the field of prevention of occupational risks

·     coordination of the activities of the ISSA International Sections for the Prevention of Occupational Risks

·     cooperation with the ILO and other agencies active in the prevention of occupational risks

·     other measures appropriate to the purposes of the Committee.

World Congresses

Since 1955 the ILO and the ISSA have organized triennial World Congresses on Occupational Safety and Health in cooperation with the ISSA member institutions and ILO constituents concerned in the host country. It is not easy to quantify the extent to which the World Congresses have kept pace with the different stages of development in the prevention of occupational risks coinciding with the social, economic and industrial progress of the past 25 years, or the extent to which they have given a lead to or encouraged this development. There is no doubt however that the resultant exchange of ideas and information relating to recent research and to its practical application in different countries, both at the national level and within industry, has enabled a large number of participants in these Congresses to be cognizant of the many changes being introduced. This, in turn, has enabled them to make a greater contribution to their particular field of activity.

The last four World Congresses took place in Ottawa-Hull (1983), Stockholm (1987), Hamburg (1990), New Delhi (1993) and Madrid (1996). In 1999, the site is Brazil.

ISSA International Sections for Prevention

Since the end of the 1960s, on the advice of the Permanent Committee on Prevention of Occupational Risks and its Advisory Council, the Bureau of the ISSA has set up 11 International Sections for the Prevention of Occupational Risks. Eight of them deal with accident prevention in various sectors of industry and agriculture and three deal respectively with information techniques, research in the area of occupational safety and health, and education and training for prevention of accidents.

Each ISSA International Section is represented by its Chairman and Secretary General on the Advisory Council of the Permanent Committee, which advises the Bureau of the Committee on fundamental questions relating to the activities of the Committee and its International Sections. A concrete example is the prevention concept (discussed separately below).

The International Sections are financially autonomous, having a decentralized structure and their own membership consisting of full members, associate members and corresponding members. Full membership is open to ISSA member institutions and other non-profit organizations; profit-making entities with activities compatible with the area of competence of a Section may be admitted as associate members, and individual experts may apply for corresponding membership. The Secretariats of the Sections are provided in various countries by member institutions of the ISSA specialized in the respective fields.

Each Section is a clearing house for information in its own area of competence. All Sections organize international symposia, round tables and expert meetings, the proceedings and reports of which are published in the ISSA Prevention Series 1000. The Sections currently have some 45 internationally composed working groups working on specific topical subjects, which range, for example, from safety advice for migrant workers in the construction industry or a checklist for the classification of machines on the basis of ergonomic principles, to safe working with biological agents. The findings of these working groups are published as technical brochures in the ISSA Prevention Series 2000. Most titles exist in English, French and German, some also in Spanish and other languages. Such publications may be ordered directly from the Secretariat of the Section concerned.

Of special interest are the International Film and Video Festivals, which are held during World Congresses and for which a Working Group of the Electricity Section forms a clearing house. All productions submitted to these festivals are listed in a catalogue in four languages which is available free from this Section.

A brief description of each of the ISSA International Sections follows.

ISSA International Section for Research.

The Section offers the latest information on both current and planned research projects worldwide. Two data banks allow quick and efficient access to this information. The Working Group “Research Concepts” promotes the necessary theoretical bases to effectively ensure that more than in the past research further serves both the field and the more practical implementation of research results.

ISSA International Section on Information.

The Information Section provides information on efficient information techniques. The Working Group “Safety and Health Periodicals” informs safety experts on the most effective way to reach their audience. The Section offers expert advice on “advertising for safety”.

ISSA International Section for the Mining Industry.

The Section deals with the classical risks of underground work in coal mines (darkness, dust, heat, gases, explosions, cave-ins) and concerns itself with the training of mine rescue teams.

ISSA International Section for the Chemical Industry.

Although new substances result in new risks, the chemical industry has developed high safety standards that have proven to be exemplary. The Chemical Section strives to ensure that these safety standards transcend borders just as much as—if not even more than—risks do.

ISSA International Section for the Iron and Metal Industry.

The high accident rate in this important branch of activity must be reduced. Safety strategies are developed against the most frequent hazards and causes of accident. The Section’s Working Groups are primarily concerned with new technologies and substitutes for dangerous working substances.

ISSA International Section for Electricity.

“Invisible” energy generates many invisible risks. The Section evolves recommendations for practical accident prevention, principles for a regulatory control of electrical appliances and systems, backed up by effective first aid measures in the event of electrical accidents. The Section maintains a clearinghouse for films and videos in the field of safety, health and the environment.

ISSA International Section for the Construction Industry.

The extremely high accident risks in the construction industry call for a safety strategy that can deal with the continuous changes of the working environment on construction sites. The Section’s aim is not only to solve individual problems, but to increase safety and accident prevention in construction industry operations overall, especially by intensified cooperation between the various trades working on the same site.

ISSA International Section for Agriculture.

The mechanization of agriculture and the use of chemical substances in agriculture are worldwide problems. The Section advocates a rapid socio-technical evolution in the light of the technical revolution, while endeavouring to ensure that the production of food does not put life at risk.

ISSA International Section for Machine Safety.

The Section deals with system safety and accident prevention relating to machines, appliances, apparatus and systems. Standardization of safety appliances, ergonomic questions, noise reduction, safety switches and the prevention of dust explosions are focal points of the Section’s Working Groups.

ISSA International Section for Education and Training.

Technical progress is expanding in all areas of life; but at the same time it brings along new risks. The major factor in accidents is the lack of education and training in the field of safety. Safety must be an integrated part of human behaviour in all areas of life. The Section deals with pedagogical aspects of education and training for prevention and aims at a global approach of prevention, making use of the experiences gained in prevention at the workplace for safety in all areas of life.

ISSA International Section for Health Services.

The Section endeavours through international cooperation to overcome the safety deficits in the health sector. The health sector has typical professional risks which in part differ greatly from those in other fields of activity—for instance, direct exposure to diseases, risks from medications, particularly gas anaesthetics, disinfectants and infectious waste.

The ISSA Prevention Concept “Safety Worldwide”

The ISSA Bureau adopted this concept in October 1994 under the title “ISSA Prevention Concept ‘Safety Worldwide’—The Golden Path to Social Policy”.

Because only seven out of every 100 fatal accidents are work accidents, with all others occurring in traffic, in the home, during sports or at school, the concept seeks to make meaningful use, in other areas, of the experience gained in prevention in the world of work.

Starting from the viewpoint that the preservation of health is a fundamental mission of humanity and thus a central aim of social security, the concept calls for the interlinking of prevention, rehabilitation and compensation and for the preservation of an intact environment. Emphasis will be laid on the human factor at the planning, organization and implementation stages and the need to begin education in prevention during early childhood. Efforts will be made to address all those who, through their own activities, can provide better protection against hazards for individuals. These include legislators and standard-setters, social partners, persons responsible for developing, planning, designing and manufacturing products and services, and school curriculum planners and teachers, as well as information specialists in public information work, occupational health physicians, supervisory and consultative bodies, responsible officials in social and private insurance, decision-makers and programme managers in international organizations, professional and other organizations and so on—and, last but not least, parents and children.

The thorough promotion of safety and health at work and elsewhere requires measures of three types—technical measures, behavioural change measures and organizational measures. To this end, the ISSA’s prevention concept defines three levels of intervention:

1.     informing the general public and developing awareness relating to safety and health matters through the mass media, newspapers, brochures, posters and so on

2.     achieving both broad and in-depth impact by seeking to change attitudes and behaviour through agents with a multiplier effect and using target-group-specific media and techniques such as educational films and other educational materials

3.     aiming at an in-depth impact on groups directly at risk through specific measures such as counselling or subject-specific brochures.

The first step in the implementation of the concept will be a stock-taking of prevention activities to determine regional needs and deficiencies. An inventory of existing support facilities and materials will also be drawn up. In addition, the ISSA will step up its information and research activities and its programme of meetings, strengthen cooperation with international organizations active in the prevention field, and take their projects into account in its own activities.

In summary, the only sure way to success lies in cooperation between prevention, rehabilitation and compensation services; the positive experiences of prevention within enterprises must be carried over into non-occupational fields; and greater account must be taken of the human factor.


The ISSA issues a whole range of periodical and non-periodical publications, studies, surveys, newsletters and bulletins; further information concerning them is contained in the ISSA Catalogue of Publications, which may be ordered free of charge at the following address: ISSA, Case postale 1, CH-1211 Geneva 22, Switzerland.

In addition to the proceedings of World Congresses on Occupational Safety and Health, which are published by the National Organizing Committee of the host country, the publications issued by the International Sections are listed in the ISSA Prevention Series 1000 and 2000, and are also available at the above address.


Jerry Jeyaratnam

Historical Perspective and Raison d’être

The International Commission on Occupational Health (ICOH) is an international non-governmental professional society whose aims are to foster the scientific progress, knowledge and development of occupational health and safety in all its aspects. It was founded in 1906 in Milan as the Permanent Commission on Occupational Health. Today, ICOH is the world’s leading international scientific society in the field of occupational health, with a membership of 2,000 professionals from 91 countries. The ICOH is recognized by the United Nations and has close working relationships with ILO, WHO, UNEP, CEC and ISSA. Its official languages are English and French.

At its founding the Commission had 18 members representing 12 countries. One of its primary tasks was to organize international congresses every three years to exchange ideas and experience among leading scientists in occupational health, a tradition which has continued to this day, with the 25th Congress held in 1996 in Stockholm.

After the London Congress in 1948 the international interest was evident and the Commission was internationalized with changes in its constitution, and the name was changed to Permanent Commission and International Association on Occupation Health, a change finalized in 1957. The internationalization and democratization of the commission grew with time and in 1984 the present name was established.

ICOH provides a forum for scientific and professional communication. To achieve this purpose, the ICOH:

·     sponsors international congresses and meetings on occupational health

·     establishes scientific committees in various fields of occupational health and related subjects

·     disseminates information on occupational health activities

·     issues guidelines and reports on occupational health and related subjects

·     collaborates with appropriate international and national bodies on matters concerning occupational and environmental health

·     takes any other appropriate action related to the field of occupational health

·     solicits and administers such funds as may be required in furtherance of its objectives.

Structure and Membership

The ICOH is governed by its officers and board on behalf of its membership. The officers of the ICOH are the President, two Vice-Presidents and the Secretary-General, while the board comprises the past president and 16 members elected from among the general membership. Further, if necessary the President may co-opt two members to the board to represent underrepresented geographical areas or disciplines.

ICOH has both individual and collective members. An organization, society, industry or enterprise may become a sustaining member of the ICOH. A professional organization or a scientific society may become an affiliate member.

Sustaining members may nominate a representative who fulfils the criteria for full membership and enjoys all the benefits of an individual member. An affiliate member may nominate one representative who fulfils the criteria for full membership and enjoys the same rights as a full member. ICOH’s individual members have a wide professional distribution and include medical doctors, occupational hygienists, occupational health nurses, safety engineers, psychologists, chemists, physicists, ergonomics, statisticians, epidemiologists, social scientists and physiotherapists. These professionals work either for universities, institutes of occupational health, governments or industries. At the end of 1993, the largest national groups were those of France, the United States, Finland, Japan, United Kingdom and Sweden, each with more than 100 members. Sustaining and affiliate members can be represented in the General Assembly, and can participate in the activities of scientific committees; they can also submit materials for publication in the newsletter, which also keeps them informed of ongoing and planned activities.


The most visible activities of ICOH are the triennial World Congresses on Occupational Health, which are usually attended by some 3,000 participants. The 1990 Congress was held in Montreal, Canada, and in 1993 in Nice and the 1996 Congress in Stockholm. The Congress in the year 2000 is scheduled to be held in Singapore. The venues of the triennial congresses since 1906 are listed in table 23.3 .

Table 23.3 Venues of triennial congresses since 1906













Vienna (cancelled)






Buenos Aires


































New York




At present the ICOH has 26 scientific committees and four working groups, listed in table 23.4. Most of the committees have regular symposia, publish monographs and preview the abstracts submitted to the international congresses. ICOH issues a quarterly newsletter, which is circulated to all members free of charge. The bilingual newsletter contains congress reports, reviews of publications, a list of coming events and information on research and education, and other announcements relevant to members. Several of the scientific committees also publish monographs and proceedings from their meetings. ICOH keeps a computerized membership file, which is printed at regular intervals and circulated to the membership. The ICOH sponsors its scientific journal, the International Journal of Occupational and Environmental Health (IJOEH). The journal is available for members at a very affordable subscription rate.

Table 23.4 List of ICOH scientific committees and working groups, 1996


Scientific committees


Accident prevention


Ageing and work






Chemical industry (Medichem)


Computing in occupational and environmental health


Construction industry


Developing countries


Education and training


Epidemiology in occupational health




Health-care workers


Health services research and evaluation


Industrial hygiene


Musculoskeletal disorders


Neurotoxicology and psychophysiology


Occupational health nursing


Occupational toxicology


Organic dusts




Radiation and work


Occupational health services in small industries




Toxicology of metals


Work-related respiratory disorders


Vibration and noise


Scientific working groups


Occupational and environmental dermatoses


Handicap and work


Reproductive hazards in the workplace


Thermal factors


David Snowball

Historical Perspective and Raison d’être

The International Association of Labour Inspection (IALI) was founded in 1972 in order to provide a professional forum for the exchange of information and experience between inspectors about their work. It promotes closer cooperation and greater understanding between inspectorates, authorities and other institutions of the role, the realities and challenges of labour inspection. The statutes exclude any political, trade union or religious activity and any judgement in respect of the labour law or inspection systems of individual states. The Association is a non-governmental organization (NGO) recognized by the ILO.

Structure and Membership

In 1996, the General Assembly (which meets every three years at the same time as the Triennial Congress) elected a seven-person Executive Committee (EC). The EC elected the President (Germany) and appointed the Honorary Secretary (United Kingdom) as well as the Honorary Treasurer (Switzerland). The four Vice-Presidents came from Spain, Denmark, Tunisia and Hungary. The EC meets as necessary to manage the affairs of the Association, whose registered office is at 23 rue Ferdinand-Hodler, CP3974/1211, Geneva 3, Switzerland. The Secretariat is located at: Hessisches Ministerium fur Frauen, Arbeit und Sozialordnung, Dostojewskistrasse 4, 65187 Wiesbaden, Germany. Tel: +49-611-8173316; Fax: +49-611-86837.

Membership of IALI is open to:

·     national and regional labour departments (directorates of labour inspection, safety and hygiene directorates and so on)

·     national groups of labour inspectors (associations, unions and so on).

There is an annual membership fee which is dependent upon the size of the organization making the application. This covers the expenses of organizing the programme of activities. In September 1995 the Association comprised 65 member organizations from 50 countries. The majority of members are now labour departments or labour inspectorates.


By gathering and summarizing information and documentation on particular aspects of labour inspectorate work and by undertaking comparative studies among its members, the Association promotes professional understanding of all aspects of labour inspection and provides opportunities for the exchange of views between practitioners. The technical symposia (organized jointly with member countries) and the triennial congress let inspectors get to know their colleagues personally, to exchange information on problems, solutions and new developments, and to develop their own thinking. These meetings also serve to focus attention in a practical way on a wide range of specific, but carefully chosen, aspects of labour inspection, thus promoting greater consistency of practice between inspectorates in different countries. The proceedings are published and a regular newsletter is also sent to members.

The programmes of IALI are devoted exclusively to the distribution of information collected through international enquiries based on questionnaires and reports from international or regional symposia. There is an international congress every three years in Geneva, undertaken with the generous technical assistance of the ILO at the time of its annual international conference. The ILO also collaborates in the organization of many of the symposia. Since 1974 programmes have been devoted to the study of a wide range of practices in the field of safety, health and the working environment. Topics have included recording systems for premises and accidents, methods of inspecting smaller enterprises, the problems of large construction sites and the use of computers by inspectors. The Association has considered causes of accidents and other problems in relation to the use of robots and other programmable electronic systems. More recently its symposia and congresses have included topics as diverse as human factors, training of inspectors, inspection of public services, child labour, agriculture, risk assessment and occupational health.

The Changing World of Work

The need for a more effective exchange of information and experience has been stimulated by a number of significant developments in the field of labour inspection, including:

·     the increasing complexity and breadth of coverage of labour law

·     the introduction of new concepts of oversight such as risk assessment and risk management

·     the scale and breadth of technological innovation (seen, for instance, in the introduction of new chemicals and compounds, the increasing reliance on programmable electronic systems, genetic manipulation, new applications for ionizing radiation or generally the growth in the use of information technology)

·     the changing structure of industry in established market economies, in countries in transition to a market economy and in developing countries

·     the growth, in part as a result of the previous development, in the number of small and medium-sized enterprises

·     the decline in membership and influence of trade unions, particularly in many industrial market economies

·     the pressure on labour inspectorates themselves through budgetary constraints and demands by government that they justify their existence and demonstrate (and where possible improve) their efficiency and effectiveness.

Challenges to Inspection

Affecting all these issues is the increased emphasis on the human factor. Labour inspectors need to analyse, understand and constructively use their skills to help employers and employees to take this central element into account in developing preventive strategies for health and safety. In many countries too there is increasing public awareness of and concern about the consequences of work and work processes. In much forward-looking legislation this is expressed as the aim that no one should be harmed in any way by the need to work. But it is also evident in concerns about the impact of industry and commerce on the environment and the quality of life.

Labour inspectors cannot simply ignore these trends; they have to take the initiative and explain through the media their role, the advice they give and the effect of their compliance work, in order to promote confidence in the constructive work they do. Inspectorates throughout the world have had to review how they work, set their priorities and carry out their inspections so they can devote more time and more of their limited resources to productive activities.

The exchange of information and experience about all these matters is of enormous interest to inspectors. For whilst inspectorates operate in very different political, economic, legal and social climates, experience shows that they have many practical concerns in common and can benefit in a very instructive way from the experience, the different viewpoints, the ideas and the successes and failures of their colleagues in other countries.


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—. 1988. L’informatisation de l’inspection du travail. Geneva: ILO.

—. 1989. A Manual for Labour Administration Trainers. Labour Administration Branch. Geneva: ILO.

—. 1989. Improvement of Labour Inspection Services in the Caribbean. Report on a workshop held in Barbados, 12-16 October 1987. Geneva: ILO.

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—. 1989. La inspeccion del trabajo en la agricultura para paises de America central y Panama. Labour Administration Branch. Geneva: ILO.

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—. 1989. Staff Training and Development Units in Labour Ministries. Labour Administration Branch. Geneva: ILO.

—. 1989. The Use of Computer Technology in Employment Services. Proceedings of the International Symposium, Stockholm 10-13 May 1988. Labour Administration Branch. Geneva: ILO. 

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—. 1990. L’inspection du travail, la santé et la sécurité des travailleurs: Guide de formation de formateurs. Labour Administration Branch. Geneva: ILO.

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—. 1990. The Role of Public Employment in the Manpower Redeployment Process: The Case of Six Countries: France, Japan, Hungary, Mali, Sweden, United Kingdom. Labour Administration Branch. Geneva: ILO.

—.1990. Use of Computers in Labour Inspection. Report of a symposium held in Vienna, 29 August-1 September 1989. Labour Administration Branch. Geneva: ILO.

—. 1991. Employment Services in the Caribbean. Report on a seminar on employment services in employment promotion, held in Barbados, 7-11 May 1990. Labour Administration Branch. Geneva: ILO. 

—. 1991. L’inspection du travail et les risques chimiques: analyse spectrale des systèmes d’inspection du travail. Labour Administration Branch. Geneva: ILO.

—. 1991. L’intervention de l’inspection du travail dans le construction en Afrique. Labour Administration Branch. Geneva: ILO.

—. 1991. Labour Inspection in the Non-Commercial Services Sector: A Study Illustrated by Procedures and Practices in Certain Developed and Developing Market Economy Countries. Labour Administration Branch. Geneva: ILO.

—. 1991. The Intervention of Private Firms in the Functioning of Labour Markets in the Twelve EEC Countries. Geneva: ILO. 

—. 1991. Vocational Guidance in Self-employment Promotion. Labour Administration Branch. Geneva: ILO.

—. 1991. The Role of Employment Services in Human Resources Development. Records of proceedings of an International Symposium, Ottawa, May 1990. Labour Administration Branch. Geneva: ILO. 

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—. 1992. Labour Inspection and Chemical Hazards: A Spectral Analysis of Labour Inspection Systems. Labour Administration Branch. Geneva: ILO.

—. 1992. Labour Inspection and Child Labour. Labour Administration Branch. Geneva: ILO.

—. 1992. Labour Inspection in the Oil Refining and Large-scale Petrochemical Industries. Labour Administration Branch. Geneva: ILO.

—. 1992. Labour Inspection: Purposes and Practice. Geneva: ILO.

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—. 1992. Situation et besoins de l’administration du travail dans les pays arabes. Labour Administration Branch. Geneva: ILO.

—. 1993. Labour Inspection in the Public Sector. Labour Administration Branch. Geneva: ILO.

—. 1993. Labour Inspection Systems and Labour Inspectors: Training Policies. Labour Administration Branch. Geneva: ILO.

—. 1993. Productivity in Labour Administration. Labour Administration Branch. Geneva: ILO.

—. 1994. Development of Labour Administration in Africa. Report on the high level tripartite symposium, Swakopomund, Namibia, 16-18 March, 1994. Labour Administration Branch. Geneva: ILO.

—. 1994. Employment Counselling Career Guidance and Occupational Information Provided through an Employment Service. Labour Administration Branch. Geneva: ILO.

—. 1994. Employment Policy and Labour Market Policy. Labour Administration Branch. Geneva: ILO.

—. 1994. Informatisation des services de l’emploi. Labour Administration Branch. Geneva: ILO.

—. 1994. Inspection du travail et l’élaboration d’une politique relative au travail des enfants: L’enfant au travail, approche psychologique. Labour Administration Branch. Geneva: ILO.

—. 1994. Inspection du travail et le travail précaire dans l’agriculture et les industries agro-alimentaires en Amérique latine. Labour Administration Branch. Geneva: ILO.

—. 1994. Labour Inspection and the Adoption of a Policy on Child Labour: Training Guide. Labour Administration Branch. Geneva: ILO.

—. 1994. Labour Inspection and the Protection of the Environment. Labour Administration Branch. Geneva: ILO.

—. 1994. Labour Inspection in the Petroleum Producing Industry. Labour Administration Branch. Geneva: ILO.

—. 1994. L’inspection du travail dans le secteur des services non commerciaux: Pratiques et procédures dans divers pays développés et pays en dévelopement pratiquant une économie de marché. Labour Administration Branch. Geneva: ILO.

—. 1994. L’inspection du travail dans l’industrie du raffinage du pétrole et dans les grandes industries pétrochimques. Labour Administration Branch. Geneva: ILO.

—. 1994. Public Employment Services and Labour Market and Labour Market Information. Labour Administration Branch. Geneva: ILO.

—. 1995. Extension of the Labour Inspection Convention, 1947 (No. 81), to Activities in the Non-commercial Services Sector. International Labour Conference. Report VI. Geneva: ILO.

—. 1995. Guide pratique opérationnel à l’usage des services de l’emploi d’Afrique francophone et lusophone. Labour Administration Branch. Geneva: ILO.

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