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.