Safety and Health Sustainability in the Supply Chain

"If there were no metal grilles on the windows a lot of people would have been saved. The factory was overflowing with garments and fabrics. Whoever complained was fired."

Despite the global safety community’s best efforts since the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire killed 146 workers in New York City over a hundred years ago, many around the world continue to work in unacceptably unsafe conditions – some cases even leading to wide scale tragic losses as recent news headlines show. Recent factory fires in Pakistan killed twice as many workers as the Triangle fire, while another killed over a hundred workers in Bangladesh. Like the Triangle fire, most of the workers in Pakistan and Bangladesh had been trapped behind locked exits and had no access to fire exits. Many in Pakistan leapt to their deaths. 

In a world in which corporate social responsibility is becoming only more important to business practice, one might ask how workers in the developing world can continue to face conditions that could lead to such loss – the kind of dramatic loss largely unseen at a factory in the United States for a century.

Unsurprisingly, the International Labour Organization (ILO) has reported that the work-related mortality rate in developing countries is five to seven times higher than in industrialized nations. And even as accidents and illnesses decrease in the developed world, both are increasing in the developing world.

Why do workers in the supply chain suffer?

One major reason is that worker safety and health is frequently taken for granted. As a result, workers in the supply chain are generally up against a number of workplace challenges, including inadequate lighting and ventilation, exposure to extreme heat and dangerously high noise levels, a lack of adequate emergency egress, equipment with insufficient guarding, exposure to hazardous substances, poor sanitation, and a lack of personal protective equipment. Supply chain workers tend to be less educated and/or illiterate, lack training and supervision, and frequently lack basic knowledge required to be proactive about their own safety. Management systems for safety are weak or nonexistent. Even the most basic safety and health measures and investments are frequently bypassed.

Regardless of whether they are safe at work or not, most workers in supply chain have no other option but to work in conditions such as these if they are to earn a wage to sustain themselves. 

It is not enough to condemn local factory owners for these conditions and to expect long term change. The corporations that source supply chain products, as well as their stakeholders, have tremendous power to influence the conditions in which supply chain workers operate. The sustainability movement, long oriented predominantly toward influencing corporate decisions with regard to the environment, has taken advantage of corporations’ interest in transparency and accountability by developing frameworks by which corporations can compile and report on performance criteria. The most commonly used and comprehensive framework to date is operated by the Global Reporting Initiative, or GRI, which is set to release its next framework in May 2013.

The occupational safety and health community, invested in the protection of workers, is naturally concerned with unsafe work conditions in the supply chain and the relevance of the sustainability movement with regard to workplace safety. Towards that end, in 2011, the American Society of Safety Professionals approached the American Industrial Hygiene Association (AIHA) and the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH) in the United Kingdom with the idea of forming a new entity focused on placing worker safety and health issues in the global sustainability dialogue. The result was the formation of the Center for Safety and Health Sustainability. Through the three founding organizations, the Center represents more than 85,000 safety and health professionals around the world.

The Center will provide safety and health professionals with a stronger voice in shaping sustainability policies—both in business and in the public policy arena. The Center’s primary goal is to develop and define safety and health as a vital part of sustainability, contributing to the broader aim of improving the safety and health of workers worldwide – especially in the supply chain. The Center will advocate for safe and health workplaces around the globe and the impact these workplaces have on a business’s productivity, product/service quality, talent recruitment/retention, and profitability. The Center will provide new insights into the measurement, management, and impact of safety and health sustainability.

Recognizing the value of the sustainability reporting trend, the Center has developed a list of key safety and health performance indicators to be used in sustainability-related reporting. The indicators promote the use of occupational safety and health management systems, extend coverage to temporary or fixed duration contract workers, and increase focus on workers for suppliers in the developing world. The Center has recently recommended that GRI consider these indicators so that it may improve the scope and global applicability of its G4 safety and health indicators.

Creating a mechanism to measure the occupational safety and health performance of suppliers is an important first step toward preventing tragedies such as the garment factory fires in Pakistan and Russia.