Safe workplaces prevent accidents with lasting scars | Sunday Observer

Safe workplaces prevent accidents with lasting scars

14 July, 2019

The rise of work related accidents has posed a growing concern among organisations dealing with the welfare of workers across the world. As the number of workers who die from occupational accidents and work related diseases globally has reached a new high, the figures are likely to escalate due to the booming construction industry and large scale development projects that have put the workers’ health at risk. The International Labour Organisation (ILO) global theme ‘Safety at the heart of the future of work” for this year, takes on a special significance in this context.

Drawing from her expertise in the field, Consultant Community Physician, Environmental Occupational Health Directorate, Ministry of Health, Dr Inoka Suraweera told the Sunday Observer how such accidents can be prevented and the adverse health impacts they have on the victims who are exposed to these unnecessary risks while working.


Q. The International Labour Organisation’s ( ILO) global theme for this year is ‘Safety at the heart of the future of work’. Could you explain this in simple language to our readers?

A. Every year 2.78 million workers die from occupational accidents and work-related diseases (of which 2.4 million are disease-related) and an additional 374 million workers suffer from non-fatal occupational accidents. Aside from the economic cost, there is an intangible cost, not fully recognized in these figures, of the immeasurable human suffering caused by poor occupational safety and health (OSH) conditions. This suffering is largely preventable. Psychosocial risks, work-related stress and non-communicable diseases are of growing concern for many workers in the world.

Workers remain challenged by persistent work-related safety and health risks and it is important not to overlook these populations as the world of work continues to transform. Therefore, we need to think seriously on safety and health when planning for the future of work.

Q. Considering the increasing number of work related accidents, how relevant is it to Sri Lanka’s workplaces?

A. Work related accidents are important in the Sri Lankan context too. Take for example traffic accidents. On an average around 6-7 people die each day due to Road Traffic Accidents. Drivers who drive for an earning get killed. The construction industry is booming in Sri Lanka with significant numbers of work injuries and accidents. Agricultural sector injuries and accidents are rampant among the workers in the informal economy which needs urgent attention.

Q. The ILO has estimated that workdays lost to Occupational Safety Heath issues ( OH) represent almost 4% of global GDP in some countries and 6% in others. Where does Sri Lanka stand?

A. We do not have country specific values. However, SEARO region is above 4%, with the highest number of work related injuries and accidents.

Q. ILO Country Director for Sri Lanka and the Maldives Ms Simrin Singh was quoted as underlining the immeasurable human suffering such illnesses and accidents cause, apart from the economic costs. What kind of impacts and debilitating effects can be inflicted on the health of the workers, especially, those who work in assembly lines in packing, sewing, and other monotonous tasks?

A. They are at an increased risk of developing musculoskeletal disorders which can have a huge psychological effect. When they go home they would not be able to do their household work adding up to social, psychological and family issues. They are prone to develop work stress and boredom among others, which will have debilitating effects (Psychological issues). These are apart from injuries and accidents.

Q. What are the causes for the most common workplace injuries in Sri Lanka?

A. Inadequate training and awareness on the usage of machinery, personal protective equipment, risk taking behaviour, non supervision, (Informal economy workers). No proper risk assessment is done by the management regarding work practices and work environments. Inadequacies in the provision of PPE, and the high cost of PPE.

Q. What is PPE?

A. PPE include gloves, boots, helmets, overalls, goggles and some others. Workers have to wear these where appropriate to protect themselves from adverse health outcomes due to exposure to work related hazards and risks

Q. What are their health impacts?

A. Death; permanent disability, (Paralysis of the whole body - vegetable status. Paralysis of a part of the body - loss of vision, deafness etc) amputations, permanent defects in the part affected; complications – sepsis, fat embolism.

Q. Who will respond best when treated? Young, middle aged or the elderly?

A. The young

Q. For persons with conditions caused by repetitive action such as a spine or back problem or a joint or wrist problem or carpel tunnel syndrome are there any preparatory programs to educate them on how to minimise these conditions?

A. Occupational therapists attached to rehabilitation units in major hospitals.

Q. What about those who work in dusty environments? What kind of illnesses can they get if their bodies are exposed to dust for long hours every day?

A. Asthma, bronchitis, and other chronic respiratory diseases. They have a higher chance of developing heart diseases and even stroke later on if they are exposed to higher levels of particulate matter especially, Pm 2.5 and Pm 10

Q. Those with sensitive skin exposed to harmful chemicals used in cleaning agents ( including mosquito sprays and rat poison to kill rodents ) inside offices and buildings, can they develop various skin diseases? What are they?

A. Allergic dermatitis, eczema, burns.

Q. Can existing non communicable diseases such as diabetes, hypertension and heart problems worsen if they work in unsafe working environments ?

A. Definitely.

Q. I was told that while many of these programs are aimed at the formal labour force sector, there is very little done for the informal sector which is rapidly growing and exposed to many hazardous risks involving people of all ages. Your comments?

A. Yes. Informal economy workers are at a higher risk.

Q. Is there any plan in your National Occupational Health Program to give them a voice?

A. Yes. The Ministry of Health hopes to plan a program for looking after the health and wellbeing of agricultural workers in the informal economy.

Q. The ILO campaign for the 2018 World Day for Safety and Health at Work focused on improving the safety and health of young workers. Why?

A. They have long working tenures and they can take up risk behaviours. Young workers are the future of a country and their health is very important.

Q. A revised National Occupational Health Program is in place. Tell us briefly about it. What are your targets? Are all workers covered by it?

A. Provision of occupational safety and health to workers in Sri Lanka needs the concerted effort of multiple stakeholders. The Health Ministry is an important stakeholder in the provision of occupational health services. Curative, rehabilitative, preventive and promotive occupational health services are provided by the Ministry of Health, Nutrition and Indigenous Medicine.

The Occupational Health Unit of the Environmental and Occupational Health Directorate is the focal point for Occupational Health in the Health Ministry. The Unit is responsible for planning, co-ordination, monitoring and evaluation of occupational health services in the National Occupational Health Program. The Unit liaises with other important stakeholders such as the Ministry of Labour and Trade Union Relations, Ministry of Environment and Central Environmental Authority in implementing the National Occupational Health Program.

All workers in Sri Lanka have access to free health services at the curative, rehabilitative and preventive health sectors. Treatment of occupational diseases and injuries and rehabilitation of occupational injuries are integrated into the existing curative health system. Occupational medical problems are taken care of by the medical units, occupational surgical problems by the surgical units and rehabilitation by the physiotherapy and rehabilitation units. Occupational accidents affecting a significant number of workers and surrounding communities are considered as disasters and curative sector response is carried out immediately.

The implementation of occupational health activities in the preventive health sector are done mainly through the Provincial and District level Health Services which comprise a wide range of MOH officers. The Medical Officers of Health (MOOH) and the Public Health Inspectors (PHII) carry out occupational health activities at the grassroots level.

Q Your advice to workers, young and old.

A. Your work and work environment can significantly affect your health. You have a right to healthy working environments and not to fall sick due to the work you do. Health is wealth and no other wealth is better than health. Therefore, engage in good work practices and avoid ill health as much as possible.