How safe are we at work?


Humanity faces serious challenges in the coming decades. With rise in economic activity, there has been increased environmental degradation and adverse social impacts. Today, we face some of the gravest challenges. The “climate” situation has moved from being called “climate change” to “climate emergency” threatening to further worsen in the absence of adequate safeguards. The unprecedented fires that have raged across Australia killing people and a billion animals are a clear example of the devastation that it is wreaking. Income inequality within many countries has been rising. The richest 147 billionaires in the world control about 1 percent of global wealth.[1] This has reached an extremely high level, invoking the spectre of heightened tension and social conflict. It has thus been established that there are chronic structural flaws in current economic models. Thus, comes in the concept of a “Green Economy” as an alternative vision for growth and development, one that is kind to the planet and fair to the people.

A very essential component of the Green Economy is “health” of the individuals to which safety and well-being of employees at workplace is fundamental.  This value deserves higher priority and visibility as part of the just transition.

The transition to a green economy has the potential to reduce many aspects of workers’ exposures to workplace hazards and pollution risks.  Green Jobs recently have been creating a lot of noise as a solution to solving the twin problems of unemployment and environmental degradation.

What gains to health will workers get in a green economy?

  • Occupational health and environmental protection measures can be mutually reinforcing. For instance, reduction in CO2 levels as a result of cleaner technologies will also lead to improved quality of air for the workers. On the other hand, measures taken to improve the work environment such as automization might lead to improved environmental performance of an enterprise.
  • Many green production strategies can generate a dual public health and occupational health benefit for workers. Presently many workers suffer a double burden of exposure to pollutants, both in the workplace and at home. Increased cancer incidence in Africa, for example, has been attributed to the combination of occupational and environmental exposure to industrial and agricultural toxic chemicals, air pollution and hazardous waste. Transition to renewable energy production may also generate a dual benefit, reducing occupational respiratory diseases and cancers related to fossil fuel extraction and use.
  • Greener, more energy-efficient building and transport infrastructure also can produce co-benefits for workers´ health. Low energy office buildings and spaces that offer ventilation for instance not only improve the workers’ productivity but also over well-being including mental health. This will also include organized workforce taskforce plans and incentivizing use of public transport.
  • A green economy can benefit health through policies supporting job creation and enrichment as well as greater economic activity. Decent work of interest and fair employment are critical social determinants of health and equity, while unemployment and underemployment are related to disease, disability and premature death. To be sustainable and ethically acceptable, green economies should generate new and enriched employment opportunities.

Jobs, however, created by cleaner technologies would be considered green, as it might be contributing to the global community as a whole. However, if these technologies are disseminated in ways that present risk to worker health, it should not be considered as green. Programmes and action support for social sustainability in a given work place, enterprise and sector is a must.

How to mitigate and manage health risks in a green economy?

  • Occupational hazards and risks associated with “green technologies” are often similar to those in conventional industries. Known measures can be employed to reduce such risks. These include change of design and provision of protective gear to protect against falls from height; exhaust ventilation for protection from excessive exposure to toxic chemicals and indoor particulates. As part of this, training of workers is required to increase their knowledge and awareness about hazardous effects of the chemicals. Clear policies and actions are needed to help governments, employers, workers and other social actors address these known problems.
  • Strategies to encourage a green economy can draw more jobs to sectors with known hazards. For instance, in developing countries, the informal sector also is responsible for much of the materials recycling. And while recycling is of great value in resource conservation, jobs may entail dirty, undesirable and even dangerous and unhealthy work, for which people are often poorly paid. Occupational health measures targeted at the informal sector are thus of particular importance.

Also, production of renewable energy can also involve hazards, e.g. falls from wind power installations, exposure to nano-particles or hazardous chemicals in solar panel production, which need to be mitigated. Using waste materials for “coprocessing” of energy (tires, plastics, used oils and solvents, sewerage sludge, etc.) in steel and cement/clinker industries promotes recycling and energy conservation (even replacing fossil combustibles) while eliminating toxic residues. However, poorly designed and managed reuse technologies may generate toxic emissions (e.g. dibenzo-p-dioxins, dibenzo-p-furans and PCBs); excessive exposures can increase risks of cancer, and reproductive/ immune disorders for workers and people who live close to industrial facilities. This requires oversight and monitoring that is often inconsistent or lacking.

  • Some climate mitigation measures and green technologies present new hazards or risks to worker health. When a technology raises threats of harm to human health, precautionary measures should be employed, even before final scientific proof of cause-and-effect relationships. For example, a Precautionary Principle policy adopted by the city of San Francisco (USA) with regards to chemical use notes that “… early warning signs of harm” should trigger an occupational health response that uses the “best available science to identify safer alternatives.” This policy has encouraged the use of measures such as: financial incentives through procurement contracts; certification and promotion of safer business practices; requirements for information disclosure; and outright bans and restrictions on the sale of products when safer alternatives are readily available.

Countries that promote green economy policies have an unprecedented opportunity to develop more inclusive health and occupational policies concerning workers with vulnerable employment conditions. Many expanding green technologies are likely to involve large groups of previously unskilled and informal workers who have until now been excluded from most forms of occupational and social protection. Greater promotion of these technologies by countries and policy-makers can, and should, go hand in hand with better occupational health protection and safety measures for these same groups. For example, in many developing countries, collection and recycling work is often performed by the most marginalized groups in the population, known as waste pickers or scavengers. Children, women and the elderly are often engaged. Basic occupational health services and primary health care may play an important role in reducing inequity and promoting just transition towards green economies.[2]

Stella George

The views expressed in the article are those of the author’s and not necessarily those of Development Alternatives.


[2] Health and environment. Managing the linkages for sustainable development: A toolkit for decision-makers. WHO/UNEP Health and Environment Linkages Initiative, Synthesis Report. Geneva. WHO/UNEP, 2008

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