People, work, health and safety: food for thought in a globalized context

The world is changing, and the themes that have to do with people’s wellness in general – and that of workers in particular – are nowadays associated with every country in the world, albeit to different extents based on historical precedents.

Alessandro Mazzeranghi

We can try to come up with a complete reasoning process that is not based on the assumption that there is a net division between historically industrialized countries and emerging countries that are starting up a national industry. Probably this was the situation at the beginning of the century, but now, all countries share occupational health and safety issues. We may not all be on the same level, but we are all going in the same direction. And the differences, the confines of these differences, are not as well marked and logical as we would be led to think: for example, several EU countries have very different concrete levels of occupational health and safety protection, although they all apply the same EU directives. Even within the United States of America there are differences from one state to another. These are just two examples that perhaps non-experts in the field would not expect.

PRINCIPLES AND NORMS: TWO DIFFERENT WORLDS First of all we must do away with the idea that the quantity and quality of pertinent legislation is the measuring stick for the level of protection of occupational health and safety. It is said that Italians are very good at making articulated, complex laws, and then at finding ways to work around them. Alessandro Manzoni said this already back in 1800, in his “The Betrothed”, a story set even before that time. I’m afraid that in a different form, this aspect has infected other people too … let’s not forget the Volkswagen case. There is a moral to be found in all this: if the law (or the norms deriving therefrom) is seen as a pure and simple obstacle, having good laws is no guarantee of workers’ health and safety – in the best case scenario, it is a mere instrument to avenge the situation. If, instead, we try to speak about principles, perhaps we can recover a more human vision that better suits the handling of (national and corporate) contexts that are today deeply unbalanced (mainly for historical reasons, as we were saying). So in writing this article, albeit with our culture firmly tied to Roman law, we strongly wish to claim the primacy of the ethical principles of justice over the limits imposed by laws.

WHY THE OCCUPATIONAL FIELD IS PARTICULAR. In many countries of the world, fascinating but rather dangerous sports are in vogue: hang gliding, rafting, free climbing … People who choose to dedicate themselves to these sports – the cause of several deaths per year – do so freely and hence consciously (we hope) assume the relative risks. Is it right to act on these people in order to force them to a greater level of consideration for their health and their safety? For most people, work is not a pastime but a necessity. According to some lines of thought (also mentioned in the Italian constitution) work is a personal necessity (in order to have a salary to support one’s existence) but also a social duty (through their work, people contribute – or should contribute – to the overall growth of society). So it is only fair that people who work – forced by but at the same time useful to society – should not incur into damages or contract diseases. It is good to have greater protection; it is good that the individual not be subjected to injustices (in the sense intended by Amartya Sen) due to the effects of the work he or she performs.

GENERAL PRINCIPLES, CONCRETE PRINCIPLES AND PLAYERS. An injustice is anything that limits an individual’s free development and self-accomplishment. In the occupational environment, the individual who works must be protected from injustices. Each to their own degree based on the objective gravity and on the individual’s psychological characteristics, accidents on the job and illnesses limit the development of the person they affect. So it is obvious that they must be prevented. But by whom? This is a foundational question, source of much confusion, at least in Europe (I will not pass judgment on other contexts that I know too little about). The correct answer is certainly the following: accidents on the job and professional illnesses must be prevented by all those who can concretely exert some kind of influence – positive or negative – on their taking place. And here, “all those” means: the worker himself who could be damaged, the colleagues working near him, the management and the company in general. Hence, in our small universe of tissue: general management, factory managers, department heads and supervisors, maintenance staff, workers… People who, at different levels, make decisions that can be in favor of or in contrast with the elementary (concrete) principles of occupational health and safety. Let’s talk about concrete principles now.

Taking for granted that first and foremost we want to prevent fatal or seriously disabling accidents and illnesses that reduce a person’s physical abilities, we should ponder on when and how these events could take place in our own operational context. And this is nothing more than risk assessment returned to its elementary foundations. But who should we be concerned with: only the company’s employees? A European would answer: all those for whom we are legally responsible and no one else! But since before we made it a question of principles and not of laws, the answer is different: all those who are exposed to the potentially negative effects of our decisions and of our behavior. Hence, the truck driver coming to load the finished product must be considered at the same level as the employee, independently of what the law states, and the same goes for the visitor or the farmer who works the field next to the factory premises. Having said this, there is one last concrete aspect to consider and a matching principle to express.

How should we behave faced with a situation of a danger that risks degenerating into serious damage for people? Which logic and which priorities should we apply? Well, here, too, we are speaking about elementary principles: we must first of all “fight” risk (if possible) in order to eliminate the sources or reduce the risks, and finally control them through people’s suitable behavior. But it is clear that, given the above, if we must all contribute to health and safety and if we want to entrust risk control to people, we must first of all involve the people in reference, making them participate in the goals and in the concrete principles that we want to apply – in few words, engross them in corporate strategy. But careful – we don’t want to speak of information and training in the traditional sense of the terms. They are useful instruments but they have broadly failed on the essential front of involvement. It is necessary to find a new way to obtain collaboration from workers on themes that would theoretically be of their interest, but that in actual fact are very poorly felt. A piece of advice: don’t follow the example of Europe. We have evidently failed on these themes, if human behavior is almost always among the causes of the majority of serious accidents!

CONCLUSION. I’ve been working in Europe (mainly) on these themes for many years, and I’d really like to start over again from zero. We have done many good things but more “at random” rather than pursuant to a precise strategy. Principally, we made the mistake of running after laws rather than taking control of the situation and trying to grow the aspects of health and safety based on a managerial logic. And so, running after this and that, it seems we got lost! Or at least we need to make a strong effort to find our way again. I seriously hope that those who come after us will not make the same mistakes and that they will keep the foundational goal well in mind: working for justice in general and for the good of the people in particular, without dispersing the effort in a thousand little streams totally lacking coordination. *

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