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Environment and the World of Work: An Integrated Approach to Sustainable Development, Environment and the Working Environment

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It should come as no surprise to occupational health and safety practitioners that if one traces back from most of our present major environmental problems—one arrives at a workplace! Likewise, the serious occupational health and safety consequences of some chemicals and substances have become an early warning system of potential environmental health consequences far beyond the workplace.

Despite the obvious inter-relationship between the working environment and the environment, many governments, employers and workers continue to respond to the causes and consequences of both working environment and environment issues in very disparate and isolated ways. (Given the importance of distinguishing between the working environment and those broader environmental perspectives represented by such adjectives as physical, general or external, this article will use the term working environment to encompass all occupational health, safety and environment issues within the workplace and the term environment to encompass those environmental issues beyond the workplace.) The goal of this article is to draw attention to the significant advantages which may arise from responding to the environment—within and outside the workplace—in a more integrated and strategic fashion. This is true not only for industrialized countries, which have made significant progress regarding both occupational safety and health and environment, but as well in transition economies and developing countries, which have a much broader and overwhelming challenge yet before them.

As this article has been specifically prepared for the Fourth Edition of the Encyclopaedia of Occupational Health and Safety it does not attempt to review the full range of occupational health and safety (OHS) issues related to the environment, many of which are reflected in other chapters of the Encyclopaedia. In fact, occupational health and safety is an integral part of every enterprise’s “environmental” performance. This is not to suggest that OHS and environmental protection are always totally compatible and mutually reinforcing; occasionally they may also be antagonistic. Nevertheless, the objective should be to find ways to protect both workers’ health and safety and the broader environment, and to avoid options which suggest that one needs to choose one or the other. The identification of environmental problems and response strategies has too often led to the creation of false dichotomies—environmental protection versus worker safety or environmental protection versus job security. While such conflicts may indeed exist in very specific and special circumstances, the majority of situations require a series of trade-offs and careful longer-term approaches for meeting both environmental and worker protection and employment objectives. This leads to a corollary thesis that worker-employer collaboration is a critical factor necessary for improved performance regarding both OHS and environment.

This perspective on environment and the world of work is especially evident if one assumes that OHS performance at the workplace should be driven by a focus on prevention rather than simply on control and remediation. The concept of prevention is fundamental to future improvements in OHS and the environment. Early in the 20th century in industrialized countries, OHS was often driven by a simplistic focus on control—the protection of workers from exposure to health and safety risks. Special emphasis was given to engineering solutions to limit accidents by improving machinery—for example, by introducing protective devices. As our knowledge of the health consequences related to the exposure of workers to certain chemicals and substances expanded, the “logical” response strategy was often first to protect the worker from exposure by improving ventilation systems or the wearing of protective devices. While important early exceptions exist, particularly in industrialized countries, it is a relatively recent phenomenon of the past few decades that so much public attention is being increasingly devoted in a number of key industrial sectors to eliminating or replacing the dangerous or toxic chemicals/substances with those which are significantly less harmful. It is interesting to note that this growing emphasis on prevention of the emission itself, or the use of specific chemicals, has grown at the same time as the public has become increasingly aware of and actively involved in environmental challenges.

This new environmental awareness has stressed both the immediate and longer-term consequences of environmental degradation for our societies and our economies. Such public interest in the environment appears to have also supported workers’ ongoing efforts to collaborate with employers to improve occupational safety and health. Nevertheless, it is blatantly clear that serious action to date regarding OHS and environment represents only a tip of the proverbial iceberg of OHS and environmental problems evident on our planet, and even more dramatically evident in developing countries and transition economies.

Environmental priorities and policies in industrialized countries have travelled a very similar path from control to prevention strategies, albeit in a much shorter time span than that of OHS. Concern for the environment in its early stages was in fact limited to a concern about “pollution”. Attention was focused primarily on emissions to air, water and soils generated by the production process. Therefore, response strategies similarly often focused on “end-of-pipe” strategies to deal with the problem of local emissions. Citing just one rather simple example, this narrow approach led to solutions such as taller chimneys, which unfortunately did not eliminate the pollution but rather dispersed it far beyond the enterprise gate and the local community. While this often satisfied the local community and the workers who lived and worked there, new environmental problems were created—long-distance and even transboundary air pollution, which in some cases leads to what has been called “acid rain”. Once the secondary effects of this end-of-pipe solution became evident, there followed considerable delay before some of the relevant stakeholders accepted that there were indeed other serious negative consequences created by the tall-chimney solution. The next innovative step in this process was to add on a sophisticated filtering system to trap the problem emissions before they left the chimney. As this example demonstrates, the focus of policy-makers was not on the prevention of the emissions but rather on various actions to control those emissions. Today, increasing efforts are being made to prevent the emissions by changing fuels and improving combustion technologies, as well as changing the production process itself through the introduction of so-called cleaner production technologies.

This preventive approach—which also requires a more holistic approach—has at least four significant advantages for the world of work and the environment:

    • Unlike end-of-pipe technologies, which create additional costs for the production process without usually providing improvements in productivity or economic return, cleaner production technologies often lead to improvements in productivity and in measurable economic returns. In other words, end-of-pipe technologies clean up the environment but usually do not help the balance sheet. Cleaner production technologies prevent environmental degradation while also creating viable economic benefits.
    • Cleaner production technologies often lead to significant improvements in the efficient use of natural resources and energy (i.e., use less natural resources to achieve comparable outputs) and also often lead to decreases in the amount of—and the toxicity of—the wastes generated.
    • Efforts to introduce cleaner production technologies can and should explicitly identify measures to also improve OHS performance within the enterprise.
    • Worker involvement concerning the protection of health, safety and environment as part of the cleaner technology process will lead to improvements in worker morale, understanding and job performance—all of which are well-documented factors in achieving good quality production.


          Environmental policies, legislation and regulation have evolved and are leading—or at least are trying to keep up with—this process of transition from control-based approaches to prevention-centred strategies.

          Both end-of-pipe and cleaner production strategies, however, have direct consequences for employment protection and creation. It is clear that in many parts of the world, particularly in industrialized countries and transition economies, there are major opportunities for job creation related to clean-up and remediation activities. At the same time, cleaner production technologies also represent a vibrant new industry which will lead to the creation of new job opportunities and, of course, will require new efforts to meet skill and training requirements. This is particularly evident in the dire need to ensure that those workers involved in meeting the challenge of environmental remediation receive effective OHS and environmental training. While much attention is being given to the potential negative impact on employment of increased regulations and controls, in the field of environment, regulation and controls, if properly developed, can lead to the creation of new jobs and promote improved environmental and OHS performance.

          Another critical change in perspective towards the environment has occurred since the 1960s: a shift from an exclusive focus on production processes to give attention also to the environmental consequences of the products themselves. The most obvious example is the automobile, where considerable efforts have been made to improve its environmental “efficiency”, although much animated debate remains over whether a more efficient car should be complemented by an efficient public transport system. But clearly, all products have some environmental implications—if not in their production or use, most certainly in their eventual disposal. This shift in emphasis has led to an increasing number of environmental laws and regulations concerning the use and disposal of products, even the restriction or elimination of certain products. It also has led to new analytical techniques such as environmental impact assessments, life-cycle analysis, risk assessment and environmental auditing (see the articles later in this chapter). These new, broader perspectives on environment have implications as well for the world of work—for example, upon conditions of work for those involved in the safe disposal of products and on future employment prospects for those involved in the manufacture, sale and servicing of prohibited and restricted products.

          Another driving force for environmental policy has been the rather dramatic number and scope of major industrial accidents, particularly since the Bhopal disaster in 1984. Bhopal and other major accidents like Chernobyl and the Exxon Valdez, demonstrated to the world—the public, politicians, employers and workers—that the traditional view that what happened within the gates of the workplace could not or would not affect the external environment, the general public or the health and livelihood of surrounding communities, is false. While major accidents had occurred before, the global, visual coverage of these events shocked wide segments of the public in developed and developing countries and transitional economies into a new awareness and support for environmental protection which would also protect workers and the public. It should be noted, however, that this provides another similarity to the history of action to improve occupational health and safety laws and regulations, which was also significantly promoted, for example, following early major factory fires and mining disasters.

          One of the most obvious examples of the effects of these environmental driving forces, and particularly recent major “environmental” accidents, may be seen within the ILO itself, as reflected in recent decisions by its tripartite constituents. For example, the ILO has significantly enhanced its activities related to environment and the world of work. Most importantly, since 1990 three major sets of ILO working environment Conventions and Recommendations have been adopted:

            • Convention No. 170 and Recommendation No. 177 concerning Safety in the Use of Chemicals at Work (1990)
            • Convention No. 174 and Recommendation No. 181 concerning the Prevention of Major Industrial Accidents (1992)
            • Convention No. 176 and Recommendation No. 183 concerning Safety and Health in Mines (1995).


                These standards reflect an explicit extension of the traditional ILO scope from that of an exclusive focus on worker protection to also include a more holistic approach to these matters by references in the preambular or operative paragraphs to relevant aspects of the protection of the public and the environment. For example, Article 3 of Convention No. 174 states that the term major accident means “a sudden occurrence leading to a serious danger to workers, the public or environment, whether immediate or delayed”, and Article 4 states: “each Member shall formulate, implement and periodically review a coherent national policy concerning the protection of workers, the public and the environment against risk of major accidents.” The ILO’s wide range of Conventions and Recommendations related to the working environment provides a very useful source of guidance for countries working to improve their OHS and environmental performance. In this regard, it may also be useful to note that the ILO provides advisory assistance and support to its tripartite constituents with a view to helping them to ratify and implement relevant ILO standards.

                In addition to these driving forces, however, there is a wide range of other factors which significantly influence the relationship between the working environment and the general environment. Clearly one of the most obvious is that despite many common concerns and issues (e.g., chemicals, accidents, health) the OHS and environmental aspects are often governed by different government ministries, different legislation, regulations and standards, and different enforcement and inspection mechanisms. These differences lead to considerable confusion, possibly additional costs as a result of duplication and, most disconcerting, to the existence of possible gaps which may lead to serious omissions concerning the protection of workers, the public and the environment. For example, recent reviews of a number of national inspectorates have drawn attention to potential problems of duplication, gaps and inconsistencies in the responsibilities assigned to factory, labour and environmental inspectorates. These reviews have also cited examples of situations in which labour inspectorates have been assigned new environmental inspection responsibilities without receiving adequate new staff and financial resources or specialized training. This has tended to deflect existing staff away from fully meeting their OHS inspection responsibilities. In addition, in many countries these legislative and inspectorate responsibilities still remain extremely limited and are not receiving adequate political and financial support. More emphasis will need to be given to developing a more integrated approach to the monitoring, enforcement and dispute settlement mechanisms related to OHS and environment regulations and standards.

                While inspectorates will be essential components in any OHS and environmental protection system, by themselves they can never be sufficient. Workplace health and safety and the link between environment and the world of work will need to remain largely the responsibility of those at the enterprise level. The best way to ensure optimal performance is to ensure optimum confidence and collaboration between the workforce and management. This will need to be supported by effective training of workers and management as well as efficient joint mechanisms to support collaboration. These efforts at the enterprise level will be all the more successful if they are supported by good relations with, and access to, an adequately financed, well-trained and independent inspectorate.

                The present wave of support for deregulation and structural adjustment, particularly within the public sector, if properly designed and implemented could lead to the more effective and efficient management of occupational safety and health and environmental protection. However, there are very troubling signs that suggest that this process may also lead to a deterioration of both OHS and environmental performance if governments, employers, workers and the public do not give adequate priority to these issues. All too often, OHS and environment are seen as issues which can be dealt with “later”, once more immediate economic requirements have been met. Experience suggests, however, that today’s short-term savings may lead to expensive remediation activities in the future to rectify the problems which could have been prevented at lower costs today. OHS and environment should not simply be seen as end-of-pipe and unproductive costs but rather as critical and productive social, environmental and economic investments.

                Collaborative action between employers and workers at the workplace to deal with OHS issues has a long history and has clearly demonstrated its value. It is interesting to note that initially OHS issues were considered the exclusive prerogative of employers. Nevertheless, today, following very extensive efforts by the social partners, OHS issues are now seen as a matter of bipartite and/or tripartite collaboration in most countries throughout the world. In fact, many countries have established legislation requiring the creation of joint occupational health and safety committees at the workplace.

                Here again, however, similar paths of development between OHS and environment are evident. When workers and their trade unions first raised issues of occupational health and safety as issues of direct concern to them, they were often dismissed as not having the knowledge and technical competence to understand or to deal with these issues. It has taken decades of dedicated effort for workers and their unions to demonstrate their fundamental role in understanding and effectively responding to these issues at the enterprise level. Workers had to insist that it was their health and safety and that they had a right to be involved in the process leading to decisions, and a positive contribution to make. Similarly, many employers and their organizations have come to recognize the benefits which have come from this collaborative process. Today, workers and their trade unions are often confronted with similar dismissive attitudes by some employers as regards their capacity and right to contribute to environmental protection. It should also be noted, however, that it is again the far-sighted and responsible employers in a limited number of high-profile sectors who are in the forefront of recognizing the talent, experience and practical common sense approach which workers can provide to improving environmental performance, and who support a well-trained, well-motivated, fully informed and fully involved workforce.

                Nevertheless, some employers still argue that environment is an exclusive management responsibility and have opposed the establishment of joint safety, health and environment committees or separate joint environmental committees. Others have recognized the very critical and practical contribution that collaborative employer/worker action can make to ensuring that enterprises set and meet appropriate environmental performance standards. Such standards are no longer restricted to simply meeting mandatory legal requirements, but also include voluntary action to respond to the needs of local communities, global competitiveness, green marketing and so on. Voluntary environmental performance policies and programmes within individual enterprises or through sectoral associations (e.g., the chemical industries Responsible Care programme) often explicitly integrate both OHS and environmental considerations. Similarly, specialized and often voluntary standards prepared by organizations such as the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) also have had an increasing influence on both OHS and environmental protection.

                The positive experience with collaboration between employers’ and workers’ organizations has also led to new collaborative partnerships and alliances which go beyond the workplace to ensure that all the stakeholders concerned with safety, health and environment are able to constructively participate in the process. Within the ILO we have called this new effort to expand collaborative links beyond the workplace to local community groups, environmental NGOs and other institutions involved in helping to make improvements in the world of work, “tripartite-plus” collaboration.

                Several emerging issues are on the horizon which may lead to special challenges and opportunities for more effective linkages between OHS and environment. Two sectors which have been particularly difficult to reach as regards both OHS and environmental performance are small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and the urban informal sector. This is especially relevant as regards the awesome implications of one of the most critical environmental and developmental challenges of the 21st century: clean water and sanitation. New participatory approaches will need to be developed in order to better communicate the significant risks for workers and the environment related to many existing activities. Beyond the risks, however, there are also new opportunities to make improvements in productivity and to increase incomes from traditional activities, as well as the prospect of the creation of new income-generating activities directly related to the environment. Given the many direct and indirect linkages between the formal sector and SMEs and the urban informal sector, innovative approaches need to be designed which will facilitate the sharing of experiences on ways to improve OHS and environmental performance. Employers’ and workers’ organizations could play a very positive and practical role in this process.

                Another emerging issue area is that of indoor air pollution. In the past we have tended to see large industrial establishments as the primary target to correct unhealthy working conditions. Today, however, there is growing recognition that many offices and commercial premises may also be encountering new occupational health problems due to indoor air pollution. This pollution is related to the increased use of chemicals and electronic equipment, intake of contaminated ambient air, the use of closed air recirculation and air conditioning systems, and the possible increased sensitivity of workers as a result of changing health patterns—for example, the growing number of cases of allergies and asthma. It may be expected that action to respond to indoor air pollution concerns will require a more integrated approach to both OHS and environmental factors than has been the case in the past.

                Links to Sustainable Development

                This article has so far briefly and superficially highlighted some of the past and potential future inter-relationships between OHS and the environment. This, however, already should be seen as a rather narrow perspective compared to the more holistic and integrated approach represented by the concept of sustainable development. This concept was the key—if not the “magic formula”—underlying the preparatory process to negotiate and endorse Agenda 21, the action plan for the 21st century adopted at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in Rio de Janeiro in June 1992 (see Robinson 1993). The concept of sustainable development is and will continue to be the subject of great discussion, debate and dispute. Much of this debate has been focused on semantics. For the purpose of this article, sustainable development represents both a goal and a process. As a goal, sustainable development implies development which equitably meets the needs of today’s and future generations. As a process, it means setting policies in such a way that they take into account not only economic factors but environmental and social factors as well.

                If such a holistic concept is to be successfully operationalized, then the approach to all these factors will require new analysis and responses. It is essential that OHS issues become a fundamental factor in evaluating future investment and development decisions at all levels from the workplace to the negotiation of international standards. The protection of workers will need to be assessed not simply as one of the costs of doing business, but as a critical factor necessary to the achievement of economic, environmental and social objectives which are an integral part of sustainable development. This means that the protection of workers should be seen and calculated as an investment with a potentially positive rate of return within projects aimed at the achievement of environmental, social and economic objectives. The protection of workers as well cannot simply be seen as protecting them at their workplace, but should take into account the inter-relationship between their work, general health, living conditions (water, sanitation, housing), transport, culture and so on. It also implies that action to improve OHS is a prerequisite for meeting the basic economic and social development perspectives in developing countries, and not simply a luxury to be reserved for the rich countries.

                As the Director-General of the ILO, Michel Hansenne, stated in his Report to the International Labour Conference in 1990:

                There is in fact one central issue which pervades almost every environmental policy discussion—how to share equitably the costs and benefits of environmental action. “Who will pay for environmental improvements?” is a question which will need to be discussed and resolved at all levels, from the perspective of consumers, workers, employers, as well as from that of local, national, regional and international institutions.

                For the ILO, the social and human implications of how these potential environmental costs and benefits are shared within society and between countries may be as important as the environmental actions themselves. An inequitable sharing of the social, economic and environmental costs and benefits of development, within and between countries, cannot lead to global sustainable development. Rather, it could accentuate poverty, injustice and division (ILO 1990).

                In the past, and too frequently still today, workers have been called upon to pay an inequitable part of the costs of economic development through deplorable safety and health conditions (e.g., the tragic fire at the Kader Industrial Toy Company in Thailand, which took the lives of 188 workers), inadequate wages (insufficient income to meet basic family needs of food, shelter, education), lack of freedom of association and even the loss of human dignity (e.g., the use of bonded child labour). Similarly, workers and their local communities also have assumed much of the direct costs of day-to-day environmental degradation or decisions to close plants for environmental reasons. It also should be remembered that while most attention in industrialized countries has been focused on ways to avoid the potential loss of jobs as a result of environmental legislation and regulations, millions of people have already lost or have had their traditional livelihoods severely reduced as a result of ongoing desertification, deforestation, flooding and soil erosion.

                Sustainable development implies that these environmental and social costs which have been “externalized” by industry and society in the past must now be internalized and reflected in the market costs of products and services. This internalization process is being encouraged by market forces and consumer groups, new laws and regulations including so-called economic instruments, as well as by decisions taken by the enterprises themselves. Nevertheless, to be successful this process of integrating the actual social and environmental costs of production and consumption will require new approaches to collaboration, communication and participation in decision-making processes. Workers’ and employers’ organizations have a critical stake in this process. They should also have a say in its design, implementation and monitoring.

                In this context it may be useful to draw attention to the major diplomatic effort under way as part of the follow-up process of the UNCED Conference to facilitate an examination of the current imbalances in the global patterns of production and consumption. Chapter 4 of
                Agenda 21, entitled “Changing Consumption Patterns”, indicates that action is needed to meet the following objectives:

                (a) to promote patterns of consumption and production that reduce environmental stress and will meet the basic needs of humanity

                (b) to develop a better understanding of the role of consumption and how to bring about more sustainable consumption patterns.

                It also clearly encompasses the concept of the need for greatly expanding the basic consumption of millions of people in many parts of our world currently confronted with dire poverty and hardship. Ongoing negotiations and discussions within the framework of the Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD) may be expected to be very slow and complex. Nevertheless they could lead to significant changes in present production and consumption patterns, particularly in some of the most critical industrial sectors of our economies, including chemicals, energy and transport. They also will have significant repercussions on international trade and commerce. Such changes will no doubt also have important implications for OHS and environment practices in developed and developing countries and for many other areas of the world of work, especially employment, incomes and training.

                Although these issues currently are being discussed primarily at the global level, it is obvious that it is at each workplace where they will need to be implemented. Therefore, it is essential that this global negotiation process reflect reality, that is, the constraints and opportunities at the workplace level all across our planet. With the globalization of our economies, and the rapid changes in the organization and structures of our workplaces (e.g., sub-contracting, part-time work, homeworkers, teleworking), and indeed changes in our perception of work, livelihoods and employment itself in the 21st century, this will be no easy task. If this process is to be successful, however, it will require the support of a tripartite collaborative process between governments and employers’ and workers’ organizations at all stages. Clearly such a bottom-up approach will play a vital role in guiding the national and global CSD process to achieve more sustainable production and consumption patterns in the future.


                Articles in this chapter focus on action at the national and international levels as well as on practical policy tools to improve environmental performance. It is clear, however, that the most important environmental policies of the future will not be set at the national or international level or even by local communities—although each of these has an essential role to play. The real changes must and will come at the enterprise and workplace level. From the chief executive officer of large multinational corporations to the managers of small family businesses to rural farmers and independent workers in the informal sector will come the true impetus and commitment to follow through to achieve sustainable development. Change will be possible only through the growing awareness and joint action by employers and workers within enterprises and other relevant sectors (e.g., local communities, non-governmental organizations, etc.) to integrate OHS and environmental objectives within the overall objectives and priorities of the enterprise. Despite the magnitude of the challenge, one can foresee the range of formal and informal safety, health and environmental policies at the enterprise level developed, implemented and monitored by a collaborative process between management and workers and other stakeholders.

                Occupational health and safety clearly has a significant impact on the achievement of our overall economic, environmental and social objectives. Therefore, OHS must be seen as a critical element to be included within the complex integration process to achieve sustainable development. Following the UNCED Conference, all national governments have been called upon to develop their own national Agenda 21 strategies and plans for sustainable development. Environmental objectives already are seen as an integral part of that process. Much work remains, however, before OHS and employment and social objectives and targets will become an explicit and intrinsic part of that process and the economic and political support necessary for the achievement of those objectives is mobilized.

                The preparation of this article has been greatly facilitated by the technical support, useful advice and comments and regular encouragement from colleagues, governments, employers and workers from around the world who are keenly committed and competent in this field, but particularly key representatives from the International Federation of Chemical, Energy and General Workers’ Unions (ICEF); Canadian Labour Congress; the Communications, Energy and Paper Workers’ Unions of Canada; and the Labourers’ International Union of North America, who have stressed the urgent need for action in this field.




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