In a cavernous hangar, an imam recites a short prayer as workers gather round. When he has finished, managers wearing white overalls and hardhats mount the platform, pick up wooden mallets and strike an aluminium keel.
The noise ricochets around Western Marine Shipyards, one of Bangladesh’s leading shipyards, as everyone applauds. The keel is the foundation and spine of any ship, and this short keel-laying ceremony marks the start of work on the shipyard’s latest order. Work also recommences on the 13 other ships, fishing trawlers and ferries in various stages of construction at the yard.
Shipbuilding is a growth industry for the country, bringing in much-needed foreign currency. Export earnings from ship construction reached $46m in 2010-11 and the government hopes the sector will contribute 4%-5 % of GDP by 2015 – and potentially create 1m jobs.
Three years ago, conditions at this Chittagong shipyard were very different, with 1,000 injuries a month in a workforce of 3,500. Now, through relatively simple measures, there has been a 99% reduction in accidents.
This has been achieved through a public-private partnership between Western Marine and Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) to promote better health and safety in the workplace. A three-year partnership, part of bilateral German development co-operation in collaboration with the ministry of health and family welfare, was the first of its kind in Bangladesh using private sector infrastructure for the provision of public health services.
The aim was to ensure a fit and healthy workforce, through better access to health services, and the company agreed to build a health clinic. The health ministry pays for a nurse, and the shipyard pays for a part-time doctor – who also attends to the local community – and two paramedics, who are also available to the local community, where many of the workers live.
After a welder was electrocuted and died while working without protective equipment, Western Marine set about analysing the risks and hazards workers faced – such as eye injuries and damage to hearing from noise. A health and safety policy was drawn up to address the high accident rates, training was provided for managers and workers, and protective clothing and equipment were distributed.
Strict reporting procedures were established, so that every incident or accident was recorded and investigated, and preventive measures implemented. The shipyard also recruited a health and safety adviser to monitor, record and address any significant issues. The impact of these measures was immediate and dramatic.
Health and safety is now embedded in the company’s practices. “The first thing is that when you do any job you ensure the safety is assured for all the workers – that’s the top priority,” says Arifur Rahman Khan, the firm’s technical director, “That’s how we start our day.” In the past three years there have been no fatal accidents.
As a result, the clinic can focus on regular health checks for workers, to identify work-related problems. The underlying philosophy is that prevention is better than cure . “If we look after our people, we’ll get better work from them,” says Abu Mohammed Fazle Rashid, the deputy managing director.
Kemal Hasan, a welder, says conditions have improved enormously. Now, he always wears gloves, protective overalls and a face mask, which prevent a lot of the injuries that previously occurred. There are fewer stoppages due to accidents, he says, and morale has improved. Workers want to stay with the company because conditions are better than elsewhere.
Since the RanaPlaza garment factory collapsed in April, with the loss of more than 1,100 lives and 2,500 workers injured, and fatalities in fires in other factories, international buyers are increasingly demanding better health and safety checks. There is also a growing recognition that health and safety are not merely a matter of worker’s rights, but also an important development issue. One worker often supports a large extended family, so fatalities or injuries can be catastrophic for communities. A healthy and productive workforce is important for economic development, and employers have a crucial role to play.
Bangladesh has come under intense international pressure to overhaul labour laws and working conditions. However, Dr Paul Rueckert, GIZ’s principal adviser for health in Bangladesh, believes too much attention has been focused on reactive processes to deal with fire and construction hazards instead of introducing more comprehensive occupational health and safety systems. Impetus for change must come from the owners and managers of the industry, he says, not just be imposed by government inspectors, who are few and cannot be everywhere at once.
Rueckert believes there has never been a stronger imperative for effective occupational health and safety measures, and hopes the Marine Shipyards project will become a model for other industries. The challenge will be to convince other employers in Bangladesh to follow suit, and accept that workers’ health and safety should be a priority for both economic development and better business.
-Povertymattersblog, the guardian.