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23. Resources, Institutional, Structural and Legal

Chapter Editors:  Rachael F. Taylor and Simon Pickvance


Table of Contents 

Figures and Tables

Institutional, Structural and Legal Resources: Introduction
Simon Pickvance

Labour Inspection
Wolfgang von Richthofen

Civil and Criminal Liability in Relation to Occupational Safety and Health
Felice Morgenstern (adapted)

Occupational Health as a Human Right
Ilise Levy Feitshans

Community Level

Community-Based Organizations
Simon Pickvance

Right to Know: The Role of Community-Based Organizations
Carolyn Needleman

The COSH Movement and Right to Know
Joel Shufro

Regional and National Examples

Occupational Health and Safety: The European Union
Frank B. Wright

Legislation Guaranteeing Benefits for Workers in China
Su Zhi

Case Study: Exposure Standards in Russia
Nikolai F. Izmerov

International Governmental and Non-Governmental Organizations

International Cooperation in Occupational Health: The Role of International Organizations
Georges H. Coppée

The United Nations and Specialized Agencies

     Contact Information for the United Nations Organization

International Labour Organization

Georg R. Kliesch   

     Case Study: ILO Conventions--Enforcement Procedures
     Anne Trebilcock

International Organization for Standardization (ISO)
Lawrence D. Eicher

International Social Security Association (ISSA)
Dick J. Meertens

     Addresses of the ISSA International Sections

International Commission on Occupational Health (ICOH)
Jerry Jeyaratnam

International Association of Labour Inspection (IALI)
David Snowball


Click a link below to view table in article context.

1. Bases for Russian vs. American standards
2. ISO technical committees for OHS
3. Venues of triennial congresses since 1906
4. ICOH committees & working groups, 1996


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International, Governmental and Non-Governmental Safety and Health

International, Governmental and Non-Governmental Safety and Health (8)

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International, Governmental and Non-Governmental Safety and Health

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Tuesday, 15 February 2011 18:40

Community-Based Organizations

The role of community groups and the voluntary sector in occupational health and safety has grown rapidly during the past twenty years. Hundreds of groups spread across at least 30 nations act as advocates for workers and sufferers from occupational diseases, concentrating on those whose needs are not met within workplace, trade union or state structures. Health and safety at work forms part of the brief of many more organizations which fight for workers’ rights, or on broader health or gender-based issues.

Sometimes the life-span of these organizations is short because, in part as a result of their work, the needs to which they respond become recognized by more formal organizations. However, many community and voluntary sector organizations have now been in existence for 10 or 20 years, altering their priorities and methods in response to changes in the world of work and the needs of their constituency.

Such organizations are not new. An early example was the Health Care Association of the Berlin Workers Union, an organization of doctors and workers which provided medical care for 10,000 Berlin workers in the mid-nineteenth century. Before the rise of industrial trade unions in the nineteenth century, many informal organizations fought for a shorter working week and the rights of young workers. The lack of compensation for certain occupational diseases formed the basis for organizations of workers and their relatives in the United States in the mid-1960s.

However, the recent growth of community and voluntary sector groups can be traced to the political changes of the late 1960s and 1970s. Increasing conflict between workers and employers focused on working conditions as well as pay.

New legislation on health and safety in the industrialized countries arose from an increased concern with health and safety at work amongst workers and trade unions, and these laws in turn led to further increases in public awareness. While the opportunities offered by this legislation have seen health and safety become an area for direct negotiation between employers, trade unions and government in most countries, workers and others suffering from occupational disease and injury have frequently chosen to exert pressure from outside these tripartite discussions, believing that there should be no negotiation over fundamental human rights to health and safety at work.

Many of the voluntary sector groups formed since that time have also taken advantage of cultural changes in the role of science in society: an increasing awareness amongst scientists of the need for science to meet the needs of workers and communities, and an increase in the scientific skills of workers. Several organizations recognize this alliance of interest in their title: the Academics and Workers Action (AAA) in Denmark, or the Society for Participatory Research in Asia, based in India.

Strengths and Weaknesses

The voluntary sector identifies as its strengths an immediacy of response to emerging problems in occupational health and safety, open organizational structures, the inclusion of marginalized workers and sufferers from occupational disease and injury, and a freedom from institutional constraints on action and utterance. The problems of the voluntary sector are uncertain income, difficulties in marrying the styles of voluntary and paid staff, and difficulties in coping with the overwhelming unmet needs of workers and sufferers from occupational ill-health.

The transient character of many of these organizations has already  been  mentioned.  Of 16  such  organizations  known  in the  UK  in  1985,  only  seven  were  still  in  existence  in  1995. In the meantime, 25 more had come into existence. This is characteristic of voluntary organizations of all kinds. Internally they are frequently non-hierarchically organized, with delegates or affiliates from trade unions and other organizations as well as others suffering from work-related health problems. While links with trade unions, political parties and governmental bodies are essential to their effectiveness in improving conditions at work, most have chosen to keep such relationships indirect, and to be funded from several sources—typically, a mixture of statutory, labour movement, commercial or charitable sources. Many more organizations are entirely voluntary or produce a publication from subscriptions which cover printing and distribution costs only.


The activities of these voluntary sector bodies can be broadly categorized as based on single hazards (illnesses, multinational companies, employment sectors, ethnic groups or gender); advice centres; occupational health services; newsletter and magazine production; research and educational bodies; and supranational networks.

Some of the longest-established bodies fight for the interests of sufferers from occupational diseases, as shown in the following list, which summarizes the principal concerns of community groups around the world: multiple chemical sensitivity, white lung, black lung, brown lung, Karoshi (sudden death through overwork), repetitive strain injury, accident victims, electrical sensitivity, women’s occupational health, Black and ethnic minority occupational health, white lung (asbestos), pesticides, artificial mineral fibres, microwaves, visual display units, art hazards, construction work, Bayer, Union Carbide, Rio Tinto Zinc.

Concentration of efforts in this way can be particularly effective; the publications of the Center for Art Hazards in New York City were models of their kind, and projects drawing attention to the special needs of migrant minority ethnic workers have had successes in the United Kingdom, the United States, Japan and elsewhere.

A dozen organizations around the world fight for the particular health problems of ethnic minority workers: Latino workers in the United States; Pakistani, Bengali and Yemeni workers in England; Moroccan and Algerian workers in France; and South-East Asian workers in Japan among others. Because of the severity of the injuries and illnesses suffered by these workers, adequate compensation, which often means recognition of their legal status, is a first demand. But an end to the practice of double standards in which ethnic minority workers are employed in conditions which majority groups will not tolerate is the main issue. A great deal has been achieved by these groups, in part through securing better provision of information in minority languages on health and safety and employment rights.

The work of the Pesticides Action Network and its sister organizations, especially the campaign to get certain pesticides banned (the Dirty Dozen Campaign) has been notably successful. Each of these problems and the systematic abuse of the working and external environments by certain multinational companies are intractable problems, and the organizations dedicated to resolving them have in many cases won partial victories but have set themselves new goals.

Advice Centres

The complexity of the world of work, the weakness of trade unions in some countries, and the inadequacy of statutory provision of health and safety advice at work, have resulted in the setting up of advice centres in many countries. The most highly developed networks in English-speaking countries deal with tens of thousands of enquiries each year. They are largely reactive, responding to needs as reflected by those who contact them. Recognized changes in the structure of advanced economies, towards a reduction in the size of workplaces, casualization, and an increase in informal and part-time work (each of which creates problems for the regulation of working conditions) have enabled advice centres to obtain funding from state or local government sources. The European Work Hazards Network, a network of workers and workers’ health and safety advisers, has recently received European Union funding. The South African advice centres network received EU development funding, and community-based COSH groups in the United States at one time received funds through the New Directions programme of the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

Occupational Health Services

Some of the clearest successes of the voluntary sector have been in improving the standard of occupational health service provision. Organizations of medically and technically trained staff and workers have demonstrated the need for such provision and pioneered novel methods of delivering occupational health care. The sectoral occupational health services which have been brought into existence progressively over the last 15 years in Denmark received powerful advocacy from the AAA particularly for the role of workers’ representatives in management of the services. The development of primary-care-based services in the UK and of specific services for sufferers from work-related upper limb disorders in response to the experience of workers’ health centres in Australia are further examples.


Changes within science during the 1960s and 1970s have lead to experimentation with new methods of investigation described as action research, participatory research or lay epidemiology. The definition of research needs by workers and their trade unions has created an opportunity for a number of centres specializing in carrying out research for them; the network of Science Shops in the Netherlands, DIESAT, the Brazilian trade union health and safety resource centre, SPRIA (the Society for Participatory Research in Asia) in India, and the network of centres in the Republic of South Africa are amongst the longest established. Research carried out by these bodies acts as a route by which workers’ perceptions of hazards and their health become recognized by mainstream occupational medicine.


Many voluntary sector groups produce periodicals, the largest of which sell thousands of copies, appear up to 20 times a year and are read widely within statutory, regulatory and trade union bodies as well as by their target audience amongst workers. These are effective networking tools within countries (Hazards bulletin in the United Kingdom; Arbeit und Ökologie (Work and the Environment) in Germany). The priorities for action promoted by these periodicals may initially reflect cultural differences from other organizations, but frequently become the priorities of trades unions and political parties; the advocacy of stiffer penalties for breaking health and safety law and for causing injury to, or the death of, workers are recurrent themes.

International Networks

The rapid globalization of the economy has been reflected in trade unions through the increasing importance of the international trade secretariats, area-based trade union affiliations like the Organization of African Trade Union Unity (OATUU), and meetings of workers employed in particular sectors. These new bodies frequently take up health and safety concerns, the African Charter on Occupational Health and Safety produced by OATUU being a good example. In the voluntary sector international links have been formalized by groups which concentrate on the activities of particular multinational companies (contrasting the safety practices and health and safety record of constituent businesses in different parts of the world, or the health and safety record in particular industries, such as cocoa production or tyre manufacture), and by networks across the major free trade areas: NAFTA, EU, MERCOSUR and East Asia. All these international networks call for the harmonization of standards of worker protection, the recognition of, and compensation for, occupational disease and injury, and worker participation in health and safety structures at work. Upward harmonization, to the best extant standard, is a consistent demand.

Many of these international networks have grown up in a different political culture from the organizations of the 1970s, and see direct links between the working environment and the environment outside the workplace. They call for higher standards of environmental protection and make alliances between workers in companies and those who are affected by the companies’ activities; consumers, indigenous people in the vicinity of mining operations, and other residents. The international outcry following the Bhopal disaster has been channelled through the Permanent People’s Tribunal on Industrial Hazards and Human Rights, which has made a series of demands for the regulation of the activities of international business.

The effectiveness of voluntary sector organizations can be assessed in different ways: in terms of their services to individuals and groups of workers, or in terms of their effectiveness in bringing about changes in working practice and the law. Policy making is an inclusive process, and policy proposals rarely originate from one individual or organization. However, the voluntary sector has been able to reiterate demands which were at first unthinkable until they have become acceptable.

Some recurrent demands of voluntary and community groups include:

  • a code of ethics for multinational companies
  • higher penalties for corporate manslaughter
  • workers’ participation in occupational health services
  • recognition of additional industrial diseases (e.g., for the purpose of compensation awards)
  • bans on the use of pesticides, asbestos, artificial mineral fibres, epoxy resins and solvents.


The voluntary sector in occupational health and safety exists because of the high cost of providing a healthy working environment and appropriate services and compensation for the victims of poor working conditions. Even the most extensive systems of provision, like those in Scandinavia, leave gaps which the voluntary sector attempts to fill. The increasing pressure for deregulation of health and safety in the long-industrialized countries in response to competitive pressures from transitional economies has created a new campaign theme: the maintenance of high standards and upward harmonization of standards in different nations’ legislation.

While they can be seen as performing an essential role in the process of initiating legislation and regulation, they are necessarily impatient about the speed with which their demands are accepted. They will continue to grow in importance wherever workers find that state provisions fall short of what is needed.



In the context of occupational health and safety, “right to know” refers generally to laws, rules and regulations requiring that workers be informed about health hazards related to their employment. Under right-to-know mandates, workers who handle a potentially harmful chemical substance in the course of their job duties cannot be left unaware of the risk. Their employer is legally obligated to tell them exactly what the substance is chemically, and what kind of health damage it can cause. In some cases, the warning must also include advice on how to avoid exposure and must state the recommended treatment in case exposure does occur. This policy contrasts sharply with the situation it was meant to replace, unfortunately still prevailing in many workplaces, in which workers knew the chemicals they used only by trade names or generic names such as “Cleaner Number Nine” and had no way to judge whether their health was being endangered.

Under right-to-know mandates, hazard information is usually conveyed through warning labels on workplace containers and equipment, supplemented by worker health and safety training. In the United States, the major vehicle for worker right to know is the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s Hazard Communication Standard, finalized in 1986. This federal regulatory standard requires labelling of hazardous chemicals in all private-sector workplaces. Employers must also provide workers access to a detailed Materials Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) on each labelled chemical, and provide worker training in safe chemical handling. Figure 1 shows a typical US right-to-know warning label.

Figure 1. Right-to-know chemical warning label


It should be noted that as a policy direction, the provision of hazard information differs greatly from direct regulatory control of the hazard itself. The labelling strategy reflects a philosophical commitment to individual responsibility, informed choice and free market forces. Once armed with knowledge, workers are in theory supposed to act in their own best interests, demanding safe working conditions or finding different work if necessary. Direct regulatory control of occupational hazards, by contrast, assumes a need for more active state interventions to counter the power imbalances in society that prevent some workers from making meaningful use of hazard information on their own. Because labelling implies that the informed workers bear ultimate responsibility for their own occupational safety, right-to-know policies occupy a somewhat ambiguous status politically. On the one hand, they are cheered by labour advocates as a victory enabling workers to protect themselves more effectively. On the other hand, they can threaten workers’ interests if right to know is allowed to replace or weaken other occupational safety and health regulations. As activists are quick to point out, the “right to know” is a starting point that needs to be complemented with the “right to understand” and the “right to act”, as well as with continued effort to control work hazards directly.

Local organizations play a number of important roles in shaping the real-world significance of worker right-to-know laws and regulations. First and foremost, these rights often owe their very existence to public interest groups, many of them community based. For example, “COSH groups” (grass-roots Committees on Occupational Safety and Health) were central participants in the lengthy rule-making and litigation that went into establishing the Hazard Communication Standard in the United States. See box for a more detailed description of COSH groups and their activities.

Organizations in the local community also play a second critical role: assisting workers to make more effective use of their legal rights to hazard information. For example, COSH groups advise and assist workers who feel they may suffer retaliation for seeking hazard information; raise consciousness about reading and observing warning labels; and help bring to light employer violations of right-to-know requirements. This help is particularly important to workers who feel intimidated in using their rights due to low education levels, low job security, or lack of a supportive trade union. COSH groups also assist workers in interpreting the information contained on labels and in Material Safety Data Sheets. This kind of support is badly needed for workers with limited literacy. It can also help workers with good reading skills but insufficient technical background to understand the MSDSs, which are often written in scientific language confusing to an untrained reader.

Worker right to know is not only a matter of transmitting factual information; it also has an emotional side. Through right to know, workers may learn for the first time that their jobs are dangerous in ways they had not realized. This disclosure can stir up feelings of betrayal, outrage, dread and helplessness—sometimes with great intensity. Accordingly, a third important role that some community-based organizations play in worker right to know is to provide emotional support for workers struggling to deal with the personal implications of hazard information. Through self-help support groups, workers receive validation, a chance to express their feelings, a sense of collective support, and practical advice. In addition to COSH groups, examples of this kind of self-help organization in the United States include Injured Workers, a national network of support groups that provides a newsletter and locally available support meetings for individuals contemplating or involved in workers’ compensation claims; the National Center for Environmental Health Strategies, an advocacy organization located in New Jersey, serving those at risk of or suffering from multiple chemical sensitivity; and Asbestos Victims of America, a national network centred in San Francisco that offers information, counselling, and advocacy for workers exposed to asbestos.

A special case of right to know involves locating workers known to have been exposed to occupational hazards in the past, and informing them of their elevated health risk. In the United States, this kind of intervention is called “high-risk worker notification”. Numerous state and federal agencies in the United States have developed programmes of worker notification, as have some unions and a number of large corporations. The federal government agency most actively involved with worker notification at present is the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). This agency carried out several ambitious community-based pilot programmes of worker notification in the early 1980s, and now includes worker notification as a routine part of its epidemiological research studies.

NIOSH’s experience with this kind of information provision is instructive. In its pilot programmes, NIOSH undertook to develop accurate lists of workers with probable exposure to hazardous chemicals in a particular plant; to send personal letters to all workers on the list, informing them of the possibility of health risk; and, where indicated and feasible, to provide or encourage medical screening. It immediately became obvious, however, that the notification did not remain a private matter between the agency and each individual worker. On the contrary, at every step the agency found its work affected by community-based organizations and local institutions.

NIOSH’s most controversial notification took place in the early 1980s in Augusta, Georgia, with 1,385 chemical workers who had been exposed to a potent carcinogen (β-naphthylamine). The workers involved, predominantly African-American males, were unrepresented by a union and lacked resources and formal education. The community’s social climate was, in the words of programme staff, “highly polarized by racial discrimination, poverty, and substantial lack of understanding of toxic hazards”. NIOSH helped establish a local advisory group to encourage community involvement, which quickly took on a life of its own as more militant grass-roots organizations and individual worker advocates joined the effort. Some of the workers sued the company, adding to the controversies already surrounding the programme. Local organizations such as the Chamber of Commerce and the county Medical Society also became involved. Even many years later, echoes can still be heard of the conflicts among local organizations involved in the notification. In the end, the programme did succeed in informing the exposed workers of their life-long risk for bladder cancer, a highly treatable disease if caught early. Over 500 of them were medically screened through the programme, and a number of possibly life-saving medical interventions resulted.

A striking feature of the Augusta notification is the central role played by the news media. Local news coverage of the programme was extremely heavy, including over 50 newspaper articles and a documentary film about the chemical exposures (“Lethal Labour”) shown on local TV. This publicity reached a wide audience and had enormous impact on the notified workers and the community as a whole, leading the NIOSH project director to observe that “in actuality, the news media perform the real notification”. In some situations, it may be useful to regard local journalists as an intrinsic part of right to know and plan a formal role for them in the notification process to encourage more accurate and constructive reporting.

While the examples here are drawn from the United States, the same issues arise worldwide. Worker access to hazard information represents a step forward in basic human rights, and has properly become a focal point of political and service effort for pro-worker community-based organizations in many countries. In nations with weak legal protections for workers and/or weak labour movements, community-based organizations are all the more important in terms of the three roles discussed here—advocating for stronger right-to-know (and right-to-act) laws; assisting workers to use right-to-know information effectively; and providing social and emotional support for those who learn they are at risk from work hazards.



Tuesday, 15 February 2011 18:43

The COSH Movement and Right to Know

Formed in the wake of the US Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, committees on occupational safety and health initially emerged as local coalitions of public health advocates, concerned professionals, and rank-and-file activists meeting to deal with problems resulting from toxics in the workplace. Early COSH groups started in Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia and New York. In the south, they evolved in conjunction with grass roots organizations such as Carolina Brown Lung, representing textile mill workers suffering from byssinosis. Currently there are 25 COSH groups around the country, at various stages of development and funded through a wide variety of methods. Many COSH groups have made a strategic decision to work with and through organized labor, recognizing that union-empowered workers are the best equipped to fight for safe working conditions.

COSH groups bring together a broad coalition of organizations and individuals from unions, the public health community and environmental interests, including rank-and-file safety and health activists, academics, lawyers, doctors, public health professionals, social workers and so on. They provide a forum in which interest groups that do not normally work together can communicate about workplace safety and health problems. In the COSH, workers have a chance to discuss the safety and health issues they confront on the shop floor with academics and medical experts. Through such discussions, academic and medical research can get translated for use by working people.

COSH groups have been highly active politically, both through traditional means (such as lobbying campaigns) and through more colorful methods (such as picketing and carrying coffins past the homes of anti-labor elected officials). COSH groups played a key role in the struggles for local and state right-to-know legislation, building broad-based coalitions of union, environmental and public interest organizations to support this cause. For example, the Philadelphia area COSH group (PHILAPOSH) ran a campaign which resulted in the first city right-to-know law passed in the country. The campaign climaxed when PHILAPOSH members dramatized the need for hazard information by opening an unmarked pressurized canister at a public hearing, sending members of the City Council literally diving under tables as the gas (oxygen) escaped.

Local right-to-know campaigns eventually yielded more than 23 local and state right-to-know laws. The diversity of requirements was so great that chemical corporations ultimately demanded a national standard, so they would not have to comply with so many differing local regulations. What happened with COSH groups and right to know is an excellent example of how the efforts of labor and community coalitions working at the local level can combine to have a powerful national impact on occupational safety and health policy.



The European Union (EU) today exercises a major influence on worldwide health and safety law and policy. In 1995, the Union comprised the following Member States: Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Sweden and the United Kingdom. It will probably expand in years to come.

The forerunner of the Union, the European Community, was created in the 1950s by three treaties: The European Coal and Steel Community Treaty (ECSC) signed in Paris in 1951, and the European Economic Community (EEC) and European Atomic Energy Community (EAEC) Treaties signed in Rome in 1957. The European Union was formed with the entry into force of the Maastricht Treaty (concluded in 1989) on 1 January 1992.

The Community has four institutions, namely, the Commission, the Council, the Parliament and the European Court of Justice. They derive their powers from the treaties.

The Structures

The Commission

The Commission is the Community’s executive body. It is responsible for initiating, proposing and implementing Community policy, and if a Member State fails to fulfil its obligations under the treaties, the Commission can take proceedings against that Member State in the European Court of Justice.

It is composed of seventeen members appointed by the governments of Member States for a renewable four-year period. Each Commissioner is responsible for a portfolio and has authority over one or more Directorates General. One such Directorate General, DG V, is concerned with Employment, Industrial Relations and Social Affairs, and it is from within this Directorate General (DG V/F) that health and safety and public health policies are both initiated and proposed. The Commission is assisted in its health and safety law and policy-making role by the Advisory Committee on Safety, Hygiene and Health Protection at Work and the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions.

Advisory Committee on Safety, Hygiene and Health Protection at Work

The Advisory Committee was established in 1974 and is chaired by the Commissioner responsible for the Directorate-General for Employment, Industrial Relations and Social Affairs. It consists of 96 full members: two representatives each of government, trade unions, and employers’ organizations from each Member State.

The role of the Advisory Committee is to “assist the Commission in the preparation and implementation of activities in the fields of safety, hygiene and health protection at work”. Because of its constitution and membership, the Advisory Committee is much more important and pro-active than its title suggests, so that, over the years, it has had a significant influence on strategic policy development, acting alongside the European Parliament and the Economic and Social Committee. More specifically, the Committee is responsible for the following matters within its general frame of reference:

  • conducting exchanges of views and experience regarding existing or planned regulations
  • contributing towards the development of a common approach to problems existing in the fields of safety, hygiene and health protection at work and towards the choice of Community priorities as well as measures necessary for implementing them
  • drawing the Commission’s attention to areas in which there is an apparent need for the acquisition of new knowledge and for the implementation of appropriate educational and research projects
  • defining, within the framework of Community action programmes, and in cooperation with the Mines Safety and Health Commission, (i) the criteria and aims of the campaign against the risk of accidents at work and health hazards within the undertaking; and (ii) methods enabling undertakings and their employees to evaluate and to improve the level of protection
  • contributing towards keeping national administrations, trade unions and employers’ organizations informed of Community measures in order to facilitate their cooperation and to encourage initiatives promoted by them aiming at exchanges of experience and at laying down codes of practice
  • submitting opinions on proposals for directives and on all measures proposed by the Commission which are of relevance to health and safety at work.


In addition to these functions, the Committee prepares an annual report, which the Commission then forwards to the Council, the Parliament and the Economic and Social Committee.

The Dublin Foundation

The European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions, located in Dublin, was established in 1975 as a specialized, autonomous Community body. The Foundation is primarily engaged in applied research in the areas of social policy, the application of new technologies, and the improvement and protection of the environment, in an effort to identify, cope with and forestall problems in the working environment.

European Agency for Health and Safety at the Workplace

The European Council has recently established the European Agency for Health and Safety at the Workplace in Bilbao, Spain, which is responsible for collating and disseminating information in its sector of activities. It will also organize training courses, supply technical and scientific support to the Commission and forge close links with specialized national bodies. The agency will also organize a network system with a view to exchanging information and experiences between Member States.

The European Parliament

The European Parliament exercises an increasingly important consultative role during the Community’s legislative process, controls a part of the Community’s budget jointly with the Council, approves Community Association agreements with non-member countries and treaties for the accession of new Member States, and is the Community’s supervisory body.

The Economic and Social Committee

The Economic and Social Committee is an advisory and consultative body which is required to give its opinion on a range of social and vocational issues, including health and safety at work. The Committee draws its membership from three main groups: employers, workers and an independant group comprising members with a wide spectrum of interests including professional, business, farming, the cooperative movement and consumer affairs.

Legal Instruments

There are four main instruments available to the Community legislator. Article 189 of the EEC Treaty as amended provides that “In order to carry out their task and in accordance with the provisions of this Treaty, the European Parliament acting jointly with the Council and the Commission shall make regulations and issue directives, take decisions, make recommendations or deliver opinions.”


It  is  stated  that  “A  regulation  shall  have  general  application. It shall be binding in its entirety and directly applicable in all Member States.” Regulations are directly enforceable in Member States. There is no need for further implementation. Indeed, it is not permissible for legislatures to consider them with a view to that  end.  In  the  field  of  health  and  safety  at  work,  regulations are rare and those that have been made are administrative in nature.

Directives and decisions

It is stated that “A directive shall be binding, as to the result to be achieved, upon each Member State to which it is addressed, but shall leave to the national authorities the choice of form and methods.” Directives are instructions to Member States to enact laws to achieve an end result. In practice, directives are used mainly to bring about the harmonization or approximation of national laws in accordance with Article 100. They are therefore the most appropriate and commonly used instruments for occupational health and safety matters. In relation to decisions, it is stated that “A decision shall be binding in its entirety upon those to whom it is addressed.”

Recommendations and opinions

Recommendations and opinions have no binding force but are indicative of policy stances.


The European Communities made a decision in the mid-1980s to press ahead strongly with harmonization measures in the field of health and safety. Various reasons have been put forward to explain the developing importance of this area, of which four may be considered to be significant.

First, it is said that common health and safety standards assist economic integration, since products cannot circulate freely within the Community if prices for similar items differ in various Member States because of variable health and safety costs imposed on business. Second, 10 million people a year are the victims of, and 8,000 people a year die from, workplace accidents (out of a workforce which numbered 138 million people in 1994). These grim statistics give rise to an estimated bill of ECU 26,000 million paid in compensation for occupational accidents and diseases annually, whilst in Britain alone the National Audit Office in their Report Enforcing Health and Safety in the Workplace estimated that the cost of accidents to industry and the taxpayer is £10 billion per year. It is argued that a reduction of the human, social and economic costs of accidents and ill-health borne by this workforce will not only bring about a huge financial saving but will also bring about a significant increase in the quality of life for the whole Community. Third, the introduction of more efficient work practices is said to bring with it increased productivity, lower operational costs and better industrial relations.

Finally, it is argued that the regulation of certain risks, such as those arising from massive explosions, should be harmonized at a supranational level because of the scale of resource costs and (an echo of the first reason canvassed above) because any disparity in the substance and application of such provisions produces distortions of competition and affects product prices.

Much impetus was given to this programme by the campaign organized by the Commission in collaboration with the twelve Member States in the European Year of Health and Safety, which took place during the 12-month period commencing 1 March 1992. This campaign sought to reach the whole of the Community’s working population, particularly targeting high-risk industries and small and medium-sized enterprises.

Each of the founding treaties laid the basis for new health and safety laws. The EEC Treaty, for example, contains two provisions which are, in part at least, devoted to the promotion of health and safety, namely articles 117 and 118.

Community Charter of the Fundamental Social Rights of Workers

To meet the challenge, a comprehensive programme of measures was proposed by the Commission in 1987 and adopted by the Council in the following year. This programme contained a series of health and safety measures grouped under the headings of safety and ergonomics, health and hygiene, information and training, initiatives concerning small and medium enterprises, and social dialogue. Added impetus to these policies was provided by the Community Charter of the Fundamental Social Rights of Workers, adopted in Strasbourg in December 1989 by 11 of the 12 Member States (the United Kingdom abstained).

The Social Charter, as agreed in December 1989, covers 12 categories of “fundamental social rights” among them are several of practical relevance here:

  • Improvement of living and working conditions. There should be improvement in working conditions, particularly in terms of limits on working time. particular mention is made of the need for improved conditions for workers on part-time or seasonal contracts and so on.
  • Social protection. Workers, including the unemployed, should receive adequate social protection and social security benefits.
  • Information, consultation and participation for workers. This should apply especially in multinational companies and in particular at times of restructuring, redundancies or the introduction of new technology.
  • Health protection and safety at the workplace.
  • Protection of children and adolescents. The minimum employment age should be no lower than the minimum school-leaving age, and in any case not lower than 15 years. The hours which those aged under 18 can work should be limited, and they should not generally work at night.
  • Elderly persons. Workers should be assured of resources providing a decent standard of living upon retirement. Others should have sufficient resources and appropriate medical and social assistance.
  • Disabled people. All disabled people should have additional help towards social and professional integration.


Member States are given responsibility in accordance with national practices for guaranteeing the rights in the Charter and implementing the necessary measures, and the Commission is asked to submit proposals on areas within its competence.

Since 1989, it has become clear that within the Community as a whole there is much support for the Social Charter. Undoubtedly, Member States are anxious to show that workers, children and older workers should benefit from the Community as well as shareholders and managers.

The 1989 Framework Directive

The principles in the Commission’s health and safety programme were set out in another “Framework Directive” (89/391/EEC) on the introduction of measures to encourage improvements in the safety and health of workers at work. This makes a significant step forward from the approach witnessed in the earlier “Framework Directive” of 1980. In particular, the 1989 Directive, while endorsing and adopting the approach of “self-assessment”, also sought to establish a variety of basic duties, especially for the employer. Furthermore, the promotion of “social dialogue” in the field of health and safety at work was explicitly incorporated into detailed provisions in the 1989 Directive, introducing significant requirements for information, consultation and participation for workers and their representatives at the workplace. This 1989 Directive required compliance by 31 December 1992.

The Directive contains re-stated general principles concerning, in particular, the prevention of occupational risks, the protection of safety and health and the informing, consultation and training of workers and their representatives, as well as principles concerning the implementation of such measures. This measure constituted a first attempt to provide an overall complement to the technical harmonization directives designed to complete the internal market. The 1989 Directive also brought within its scope the provisions of the 1980 Framework Directive on risks arising from use at work of chemical, physical and biological agents. It parallels the ILO Convention concerning Occupational Safety and Health, 1981 (No. 155) and its accompanying Recommendation (No. 161).

The overall objectives of the 1989 Directive may be summarized as being:

  • humanization of the working environment
  • accident prevention and health protection at the workplace
  • to encourage information, dialogue and balanced participation on safety and health by means of procedures and instruments
  • to promote throughout the Community, the harmonious development of economic activities, a continuous and balanced expansion and an accelerated rise in the standard of living
  • to encourage the increasing participation of management and labour in decisions and initiatives
  • to establish the same level of health protection for workers in all undertakings, including small and medium-sized enterprises, and to fulfil the single market requirements of the Single European Act 1986; and
  • the gradual replacement of national legislation by Community legislation.


General duties placed upon the employer include duties of awareness, duties to take direct action to ensure safety and health, duties of strategic planning to avoid risks to safety and health, duties to train and direct the workforce, duties to inform, consult and involve the workforce, and duties of recording and notification.

The Directive provided similar safeguards for small and medium-sized enterprises. It is stated, for example, that the size of the undertaking and/or establishment is a relevant matter in relation to determining the sufficiency of resources for dealing with the organization of protective and preventive measures. It is also a factor to be considered in relation to obligations concerning first aid, fire fighting and evacuation of workers. Furthermore, the Directive included a power for differential requirements to be imposed upon varying sizes of undertakings as regards documentation to be provided. Finally, in relation to the provision of information, it is stated that national measures “may take account, inter alia, of the size of the undertaking and/or establishment”.

Under the umbrella of the 1989 Directive, a number of individual directives have also been adopted. In particular, “daughter” directives have been adopted on minimum safety and health requirements for the workplace, for the use of work equipment, for the use of personal protective equipment, for the manual handling of loads, and for work with display screen equipment.

The following Directives have also been adopted:

  • Council Directive of 20 December 1993 concerning the minimum safety and health requirements for work on board fishing vessels (93/103/EEC)
  • Council Directive of 12 October 1993 amending Directive 90/679/EEC on the protection of workers from risks related to exposure to biological agents at work (93/88/EEC)
  • Council Directive of 3 December 1992 on the minimum requirements for improving the safety and health protection of workers in surface and underground mineral-extracting industries (92/104/EEC)
  • Council Directive of 3 November 1992 on the minimum requirements for improving the safety and health protection of workers in mineral-extracting industries that involve drilling (92/91/EEC)
  • Council Directive of 19 October 1992 on the introduction of measures to encourage improvements in the safety and health at work of pregnant workers and workers who have recently given birth or who are breast-feeding (92/85/EEC)
  • Council Directive of 24 June 1992 on the minimum requirements for the provision of safety and/or health signs at work (92/58/EEC)
  • Council Directive of 24 June 1992 on the implementation of minimum safety and health requirements at temporary or mobile construction sites (92/57/EEC)
  • Council Directive of 31 March 1992 on the minimum safety and health requirements for improved medical treatment on board vessels (92/29/EEC)
  • Council Directive of 23 April 1990 on the contained use of genetically modified micro-organisms. (90/219/ EEC)


Since the passage of the Maastricht Treaty, further measures have been passed, namely: a Recommendation on a European schedule of industrial diseases; a directive on asbestos; a directive on safety and health signs at the workplace; a directive on medical assistance on board vessels; directives on health and safety protection in the extractive industries; and a directive introducing measures to promote improvements in the travel conditions of workers with motor disabilities.

The Single Market

The original Article 100 has been replaced by a new provision in the Treaty of European Union. The new Article 100 ensures that the European Parliament and the Economic and Social Committee must be consulted in all cases and not simply when the implementation of a directive would involve the amendment of legislation in one or more Member States.



The occupational safety and health of workers has been an important aspect of legislation laid down in the form of the Labour Law promulgated in July 1994. To urge enterprises into the market system, and in the meantime to protect the rights of labourers, in-depth reforms in the system of labour contracts and wage distribution and in social security have been major priorities in the government agenda. Establishing a uniform welfare umbrella for all workers regardless of the ownership of the enterprises is one of the goals, which also include unemployment coverage, retirement pension systems, and occupational disease and injuries compensation insurance. The Labour Law requires that all employers pay a social security contribution for their workers. Part of the legislation, the draft of the Occupational Disease Prevention and Control Law, will be an area of the Labour Law to which major attention has been devoted in order to regulate the behaviour and define the responsibilities of employers in controlling occupational hazards, while at the same time giving more rights to workers in protecting their own health.

Cooperation Between Governmental Agencies and the All-China Federation of Trade Unions in Policy Making and Legislation Enforcement

The Ministry of Public Health (MOPH), the Ministry of Labour (MOL), and the All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) have a long history of cooperation. Many important policies and activities have resulted from their joint efforts.

The current division of responsibility between the MOPH and the MOL in occupational safety and health is as follows:

  • From the preventive medical point of view, the MOPH oversees industrial hygiene and occupational health, enforcing national health inspection.
  • The focus of the MOL is on engineering the control of occupational hazards and on the organization of labour, as well as overseeing occupational safety and health and enforcing national labour inspection (figure 1) (MOPH and MOL 1986).


Figure 1. Governmental organization and division of responsibility for occupational health and safety


It is difficult to draw a line between the responsibilities of the MOPH and the MOL. It is expected that further cooperation will focus on enhancing enforcement of occupational safety and health regulations.

The ACFTU has been increasingly involved in safeguarding workers’ rights. One of the important tasks of the ACFTU is to promote the establishment of trade unions in foreign-funded enterprises. Only 12% of overseas-funded enterprises have established unions.



Tuesday, 15 February 2011 18:55

Case Study: Exposure Standards in Russia

Comparison of the Philosophical Bases of Maximum Allowable Concentrations (MACs) and Threshold Limit Values (TLVs)

Rapid development of chemistry and wide usage of chemical products require specific toxicological studies and hazards evaluation with regard to long-term and combined effects of chemical substances. The setting of standards for chemicals in the working environment is being conducted by occupational hygienists in many countries of the world. Experience on the matter has been accumulated in international and multilateral organizations such as the International Labour Organization, the World Health Organization, the United Nations Environment Programme, the Food and Agriculture Organization and the European Union.

Much has been done in this field by Russian and American scientists. In 1922 studies were launched in Russia to set up standards for chemicals in the air of indoor work areas, and the first maximum allowable concentration (MAC) value for sulphur-containing gas was adopted. By 1930 only 12 MAC values were established, whereas by 1960 their number reached 181.

The American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists (ACGIH) started its work in 1938, and the first threshold limit values (TLVs) list was published in 1946 for 144 substances. The TLVs are to be interpreted and used only by the specialists in this field. If a TLV has been included in the safety standards (the so-called standards of national consensus) and the federal standards, it becomes legal.

At present more than 1,500 MAC values have been adopted for workplace air in Russia. More than 550 TLVs for chemical substances have been recommended in the United States.

Analysis of hygienic standards made in 1980–81 showed that 220 chemicals of the MAC list (Russia) and the TLV list (United States) had the following differences: from two- to fivefold differences were found in 48 substances (22%), 42 substances had five- to ten-fold differences, and 69% substances (31%) had more than ten-fold differences. Ten per cent of the recommended TLVs were 50 times higher than the MAC values for the same substances. The MAC values, in turn, were higher than the TLVs for 16 substances.

The largest divergence of standards occurs in the class of chlorinated hydrocarbons. Analysis of the TLV list adopted in 1989–90 showed a trend toward a reduction of the earlier recommended TLVs compared with the MAC values for chlorinated hydrocarbons and some solvents. Differences among the TLVs and the MACs for the majority of metal aerosols, metalloids, and their compounds were insignificant. The divergences for irritant gases were also slight. The TLVs for lead, manganese and tellurium compared with their MAC analogues disagreed 15, 16 and 10 times, respectively. The differences for acetic aldehyde and formaldehyde were the most extreme—36 and 6 times, respectively. In general, the MAC values adopted in Russia are lower than the TLVs recommended in the United States.

These divergences are explained by the principles used in the development of hygienic standards in the two countries and by the way of these standards are applied to protect workers’ health.

A MAC is a hygienic standard used in Russia to denote a concentration of a harmful substance in the air of the workplace which will not cause, in the course of work for eight hours daily or for any other period of time (but not more than 41 hours per week throughout the working life of an individual), any disease or deviation in the health status as detectable by the available methods of investigation, during the working life or during the subsequent life of the present and next generations. Thus, the concept used in defining the MAC does not allow for any adverse effect on a worker or his or her progeny. The MAC is a safe concentration.

A TLV is the concentration (in air) of a material to which most workers can be exposed daily without adverse effect. These values are established (and revised annually) by the ACGIH and are time-weighted concentrations for a seven- or eight-hour workday and 40-hour workweek. For most materials the value may be exceeded, to a certain extent, provided there are compensatory periods of exposure below the value during the workday (or in some cases the week). For a few materials (mainly those that produce a rapid response) the limit is given as ceiling concentration (i.e., a maximum allowable concentration) that should never be exceeded. The ACGIH states that TLVs should be used as guides in the control of health hazards, and are not fine lines between safe and dangerous concentrations, nor are they a relative index of toxicity.

The TLV definition also contains the principle of inadmissibility of harmful impact. However, it does not cover all of the working population, and it is admitted that a small percentage of workers may manifest health changes or even occupational pathologies. Thus TLVs are not safe for all workers.

According to ILO and WHO experts, these divergences are the result of different scientific approaches to a number of interrelated factors including the definition of an adverse health effect. Therefore, different initial approaches for the control of chemical hazards lead to different methodological principles, essential points of which are presented below.

The main principles of setting hygienic standards for dangerous substances in the air of workplaces in Russia compared with those in the United States are summarized in table 1. Of special importance is the theoretical concept of the threshold, the basic difference between the Russian and the American specialists that underlies their approaches to setting standards. Russia accepts the concept of a threshold for all types of dangerous effects of chemical substances.

Table 1. A comparison of some ideological bases for Russian and American standards

Russia (MACs)

United States (TLVs)

Threshold nature of all kinds of adverse effects. Changes of specific and non-specific factors regarding the criteria of harmful impact are evaluated.

No recognition of threshold for mutagens and some carcinogens. Changes of specific and non-specific factors depending on “dose-effect ”and “dose-response” relationship are evaluated.

Priority of medical and biological factors over technological and economic criteria.

Technological and economic criteria prevail.

Prospective toxicological assessment and interpretation of standards before the commercialization of chemical products.

Retrospective setting of standards.


However, the recognition of a threshold for some types of effects  requires  the  distinction  between  injurious  and  non-injurious effects produced by chemical substances. Consequently, the threshold of unhealthy effects established in Russia is the minimal concentration (dose) of a chemical that causes changes beyond the limits of physiological adaptive responses or produces latent (temporarily compensated) pathologies. In addition, various statistical, metabolic, and toxico-kinetic criteria of adverse effects of chemicals are used to differentiate between the processes of physiological adaptation and pathological compensation. Pathomorphological changes and narcotic symptoms of earliest impairment have been suggested in the United States for the identification of injurious and non-injurious effects. It means that more sensitive methods have been chosen for the toxicity evaluation in Russia than those in the United States. This, therefore, explains the generally lower levels of MACs compared to TLVs. When the detection criteria for injurious and non-injurious effects of chemicals are close or practically coincide, as in the case of irritant gases, the differences in standards are not so significant.

The evolution of toxicology has put into practice new methods for the identification of minor changes in tissues. These are enzyme induction in the smooth endoplastic reticular hepatic tissue and reversible hypertrophy of the liver. These changes may appear after exposure to low concentrations of many chemical substances. Some researchers consider these to be adaptive reactions, while others interpret them as early impairments. Today, one of the most difficult tasks of toxicology is obtaining data that show whether enzyme disturbances, nervous system disorders and changes in behavioural responses are the result of deteriorated physiological functions. This would make it possible to predict more serious and/or irreversible impairments in case of long-term exposure to dangerous substances.

Special emphasis is placed on the differences in the sensitivity of methods used for the establishment of MACs and TLVs. Very sensitive methods of conditioned reflexes applied to studies of the nervous system in Russia have been found to be the main cause of divergences between the MACs and the TLVs. However, the use of this method in the process of hygienic standardization is not obligatory. Numerous methods of different sensitivities are normally used for the developing of a hygienic standard.

A great number of studies conducted in the United States in connection with the setting-up of exposure limits are aimed at examining the transformation of industrial compounds in the human body (routes of exposure, circulation, metabolism, removal, etc.). Methods of chemical analysis used to establish the values of TLVs and MACs also cause divergences due to their different selectivities, accuracies and sensitivities. An important element usually taken into consideration by OSHA in the standardization process in the United States is the “technical attainability” of a standard by industry. As a result, some standards are recommended on a basis of the lowest presently existing concentrations.

MAC values in Russia are established on a basis of the prevalence of medico-biological characteristics, whereas the technological attainability of a standard is practically ignored. This partly explains lower MAC values for some chemical substances.

In Russia MAC values are assessed in toxicological studies before a substance is authorized for industrial use. A tentative safe exposure level is established during the laboratory synthesis of a chemical. The MAC value is established after animal experiments, at the design stage of the industrial process. The correction of the MAC value is carried out after evaluation of working conditions and workers’ health when the substance is used in industry. Most of the safe levels of exposure in Russia have been recommended after experiments on animals.

In the United States a final standard is established after a chemical substance has been introduced in industry, because the values of permissible levels of exposure are based on the assessment of health. As long as the differences of principle between the MACs and the TLVs remain, it is unlikely to expect the convergence of these standards in the near future. However, there is a trend towards the reduction of some TLVs that makes this not so impossible as it may seem.



The role of international organizations is essentially to offer an organized framework for international cooperation. Over the centuries people have exchanged information and experiences in many ways. Cooperation between countries, scientists and professional groups developed progressively over time, but by the beginning of the 20th century it had become obvious that some issues could be faced only collectively.

In general, a distinction is made between “intergovernmental” and “non-governmental” international organizations. Intergovernmental organizations (IGOs) include the United Nations and its specialized agencies. There are also many other intergovernmental organizations, such as the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the Organization of African Unity (OAU), the Organization of American States (OAS), and regional or subregional entities, such as the European Union (formerly the European Communities), MERCOSUR (Southern Market—Mercado Comun del Sur), the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) and the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) between Canada, the United States and Mexico.

Some international non-governmental organizations, such as the International Commission on Occupational Health (ICOH) and the International Social Security Association (ISSA), cover all aspects of occupational health and safety. Many international non-governmental organizations are interested in occupational health and safety within the frameworks of their broader activities, such as the employers’ and workers’ organizations and the international associations of various professional groups. Some non-governmental organizations, such as the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), deal with standardization, and many other non-governmental organizations deal with specific subject areas or with specific sectors of economic activities.

Many intergovernmental and non-governmental organizations have interests in occupational health and safety, which involves technical, medical, social and legal aspects as well as a variety of disciplines, professions and social groups. There is a comprehensive network of organizations whose knowledge and capabilities can be used to promote exchange of information and experience among countries.

Aims and Purposes of Intergovernmental Organizations

One of the important roles of international organizations is to translate agreed-upon values into rights and obligations. The Charter of the United Nations (United Nations 1994) provides a good example of what the role of an international organization in the UN system should be—that is, “to achieve international cooperation in solving international problems of an economic, social, cultural, or humanitarian character, and in improving and encouraging respect for human rights and for fundamental freedom for all without distinction as to race, sex, language or religion.” The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights refers to the principles proclaimed in the Charter of the United Nations and recognizes the right of everyone to safe and healthy working conditions.

The aims and purposes of international organizations are set out in their Charters, Constitutions, Statutes or Basic Texts. For example, the Constitution of the World Health Organization (WHO) (1978) states that its aim is “the attainment by all people of the highest possible level of health”. Protection of the worker against sickness, disease and injury arising from employment is one of the tasks assigned to the International Labour Organization (ILO) in the words of the Preamble of its Constitution (see below and ILO 1992). The Declaration on the Aims and Purposes of the International Labour Organization, adopted by the International Labour Conference at its 26th Session in Philadelphia in 1944, recognizes the obligation of the ILO to further, among the nations of the world, the implementation of programmes that will achieve “adequate protection for the life and health of workers in all occupations”.

The international community recognizes that there are issues where countries are interdependent. One of the main roles of the intergovernmental organizations is to address such issues. The Preamble of the ILO Constitution adopted in 1919 recognizes that “the failure of any nation to adopt humane conditions of labour is an obstacle in the way of other nations which desire to improve the conditions in their own countries” and considers that “a universal and lasting peace can only be established if it is based on social justice”. The ILO Declaration of Philadelphia states that “poverty anywhere constitutes a danger to prosperity everywhere”. The WHO Constitution states that an “unequal development in different countries in the promotion of health and control of diseases, especially communicable diseases, is a common danger” and that “the achievement of any State in the promotion and protection of health is valuable to all”. The role of international organizations is to ensure a continuity and create a stability over time towards such long-term policy objectives, while short- and medium-term planning often prevails at the national level because of local social and economic conditions and political circumstances.

Each international organization has a mandate assigned by its constituents. It is within their mandates that international organizations address specific issues such as occupational health and safety. Common features of intergovernmental organizations are that they provide guidance, formulate recommendations and develop standards. International instruments created within the United Nations system that can be applicable at the national level may be divided into two categories. Nonbinding instruments usually take the form of recommendations or resolutions and can serve as a basis for national legislation. Binding instruments entail the obligation that national laws and practices will be brought into line with the decisions agreed upon at the international level. Most binding instruments take the form of international Conventions that require an additional international act of ratification, approval or accession whereby a State establishes its consent to be bound by the obligations of the Convention.

International organizations represent a forum where their constituents elaborate and establish their common policies and strategies in a great variety of fields, including occupational safety and health. This is where countries confront their values and their opinions; exchange information and experience; discuss and propose solutions; and determine the ways to work together towards objectives in order to achieve consensus, agreement, or international conventions that define a common understanding of what is right to do and what should not be done.

One of the advantages of an international organization is to provide for international debates a controlled environment that is governed by rules and procedures agreed upon by its constituents, allowing, at the same time, for a multitude of informal and diplomatic contacts much wider than those that can be made at the level of a single country. Various groups and countries having similar problems in common may compare their approaches and improve their strategies. From an international perspective, it is easier to achieve objectivity about difficult but specific problems linked to national institutional arrangements or to particular historical conditions. Social partners who can hardly meet at the national level sit at the same table. The dialogue is renewed, and hope for a consensus may come to light where it might have been impossible at the national level. Pressure groups can play a catalytic role in the process of consensus building without a need for aggressive strategies. Not only can exchanges of information and experience take place at international conferences, but various groups can measure the worldwide acceptability of their ideas, values and policies at these conferences.

In practice, intergovernmental organizations are involved in a wide variety of activities covering exchange of information, transfer of knowledge, harmonization of terminology and concepts, consensus building, codes of conduct and of good practice, and promotion and coordination of research. Most international organizations also have numerous programmes and activities aimed at assisting their member States to achieve objectives relevant to their mandate, including technical cooperation. International organizations have at their disposal a variety of means of action, such as reports and studies, meetings of experts, seminars, workshops, symposia, conferences, technical advisory services, information exchanges, and a clearinghouse role. In the course of time, basic mandates of international organizations have been enlarged and made more specific by resolutions and programmes that have been approved by their constituents on the occasion of their general assemblies, such as the International Labour Conference of the ILO or the World Health Assembly of the WHO.

The United Nations and Its Specialized Agencies

In the United Nations system, two specialized agencies are directly concerned with occupational health and safety taken as a whole: the International Labour Organization (ILO) and the World Health Organization (WHO). Among the specialized agencies of the United Nations, the International Labour Organization has a unique character since it is tripartite (i.e., its constituents are governments, employers and workers). Another characteristic of the ILO is its standard-setting activities (i.e., the International Labour Conference adopts international Conventions and Recommendations). Since the working environment is considered an integral part of the human environment (International Labour Organization/United Nations Environment Programme/World Health Organization 1978) the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) also deals with the matter, in particular as regards chemicals. Its International Register of Potentially Toxic Chemicals (IRPTC) cooperates closely with the ILO and the WHO within the framework of the International Program on Chemical Safety (IPCS).

Apart from their headquarters, international organizations have field structures and specialized institutions or bodies, such as the WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), and the Pan-American Centre for Human Ecology and Health (ECO), which contributes to the implementation of the Regional Workers’ Health Program of the Pan-American Health Organization (PAHO). The ILO International Training Centre in Turin (Italy) carries out training activities in occupational health and safety and develops training materials for various professional groups, and the International Institute for Labour Studies (IILS) addresses from time to time occupational safety and health issues. The WHO and the ILO have regional offices, area offices and national correspondents. Regional ILO and WHO conferences are convened periodically. The PAHO was founded in 1902 and is also the WHO Regional Office for the Americas. In 1990, the Pan-American Sanitary Conference adopted a resolution on workers’ health (PAHO 1990) which established guidelines for PAHO’s programme and designated 1992 the “Year of Workers’ Health in the Americas”.

The ILO headquarters and field structures support the commitment and the activities of its member States in occupational health and safety within the framework of its International Programme for the Improvement of Working Conditions and Environment (PIACT) (ILO 1984). This programme includes a large variety of advisory services and technical cooperation activities all over the world. The ILO has recently adopted an active partnership policy (APP) that brings the organization closer to its tripartite constituents in member States by strengthening its field structures, most notably through the establishment of multidisciplinary teams (MDTs).

Several other UN specialized agencies have an important role concerning specific aspects of occupational health and safety, such as the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which is concerned with nuclear safety, the protection of workers from radiation, and the safety of radiation sources. The United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) is concerned with occupational safety and health in specific sectors of industry, and is engaged together with the UNEP and the World Bank in preparing guidelines for industrial pollution prevention and control that cover occupational health and safety issues as well. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) promotes safety in the use of pesticides (FAO 1985) and occupational health and safety in forestry, including cooperative arrangements with the ILO and the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe.

The Committee of Experts on Transport of Dangerous Goods of the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations prepared the Recommendations on the Transport of Dangerous Goods, which provide guidance in drafting national legislation and achieving some uniformity throughout the world for various modes of transport. The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) has established international standards for the operation of aircraft and has published a manual of civil aviation medicine that covers aspects relating to occupational health for flying personnel. The International Maritime Organization (IMO) has adopted an International Convention on Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS). The WHO, the ILO, and the IMO have prepared an International Medical Guide for ships that includes distinct parts containing a schedule for the contents of a ship’s medicine chest and a medical section of the International Code of Signals. A medical first aid guide for use in accidents involving dangerous substances was jointly prepared by the IMO, the WHO and the ILO.

Funding organizations such as the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) have been financially supporting over the last 25 years a large number of occupational health and safety projects in many countries, including the establishment of national occupational safety and health institutes. The executing agencies for these projects have been the ILO, the WHO, and both organizations jointly. In its economic development projects, the World Bank takes into account environmental, health and human ecological considerations (World Bank 1974), including occupational health and safety. In 1987, the World Bank embarked on a major effort to incorporate environmental concerns into all aspects of its activities. This includes a stronger focus on the development of institutional capacity for environmental management at the country level, a greater recognition of the need to embed environmental concerns into sectoral work, and increased emphasis on the social aspects of environmentally sustainable development (World Bank 1993a). Furthermore, the Report Investing in Health, examines the interplay between human health, health policy and economic development (World Bank 1993b).

Other Intergovernmental Organizations

The activities of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) are particularly important as regards environmental health issues, safety in the use of chemicals, methods for the evaluation of chemical risks, and protection from radiation. The Council of Europe has adopted a number of resolutions relating to occupational safety and health concerning, for example, safety services within enterprises. The European Social Charter, adopted by the Council of Europe in 1961, recognizes the right of workers to safe and healthy working conditions. The Nordic Council is concerned with occupational safety and health and environmental problems and makes recommendations regarding toxic and dangerous substances, nuclear safety, and protection from radiation, as well as programmes of action on the occupational environment. The Arab Labour Organization, chartered in 1965, is a specialized agency within the framework of the Arab League; it undertakes studies and conducts research in industrial safety and occupational health. The countries from MERCOSUR have a special commission for the harmonization of legislation in occupational health and safety.

The European Union adopts directives that are compulsory for its member States and should be translated into national laws. The European directives cover the whole field of occupational health and safety with the aim of harmonizing national legislation, taking into account the principle of subsidiarity. Three levels of directives can be identified (TUTB 1991): the framework directives, such as the Directive on the Introduction of Measures to Encourage Improvement in Safety and Health of Workers at Work (89/391); those that cover the risks to which workers are exposed (lead, asbestos, noise, ionizing radiation and so on); and those that establish the rules governing the design of work equipment. Technical standards are developed by European Commissions for Standardization (CEN, CENELEC). The Commission of the European Union (formerly the Commission of the European Communities) prepares the directives and has an important occupational safety and health programme (Commission of the European Communities 1990). The European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions, in Dublin, has activities in occupational safety and health, including a working group on occupational health strategies in Europe. The year 1992 was designated the “European Year of Safety, Hygiene and Health Protection at Work”, and a large number of occupational safety and health activities have been supported in countries of the European Union. A European Agency for Safety and Health at Work was established in Bilbao (Spain) as a specialized body of the European Union.

International Non-governmental Organizations

Scientific, professional and other groups also felt the need to develop international cooperation and join in international non-governmental organizations. They may be formed of individual specialists, national associations of specialists, or institutions. The International Commission on Occupational Health (ICOH) was founded in 1906 as the Permanent Commission on Occupational Diseases. It is discussed in a separate article in this chapter.

The International Social Security Association (ISSA) is an international organization of official agencies responsible for the administration of social security and has had a programme concerning the prevention of occupational risks since 1954 and is also discussed separately in this chapter.

While the ICOH and the ISSA are concerned with the whole field of occupational health and safety, there are a number of non-governmental organizations that deal with specific sectors of economic activity, such as agriculture, or with specific subject areas as varied as technology, toxicology, psychology, work organization, process safety, human engineering, epidemiology, social medicine, lifting appliances, cargo handling, pressured vessels, transport of containers and of dangerous materials, safety signals, road safety and nuclear safety. Numerous international non-governmental organizations are concerned with the environment and the protection of consumers, including the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources—World Conservation Union (IUCN) and the International Organization of Consumers Unions (IOCU). They are interested in environmental health and, to some extent, in occupational health, particularly in chemical safety and pesticides.

In the field of the protection of workers, patients and the public from adverse effects of ionizing radiation, the work of the International Commission on Radiological Protection (ICRP) is authoritative worldwide and serves as a basis for international recommendations by intergovernmental organizations. The International Radiation Protection Association (IRPA) has established an International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection (ICNIRP), which issues guidelines on exposure limits and contributes to the ILO and WHO publications on non-ionizing radiation. Many other international non-governmental organizations or associations could be mentioned since they deal with occupational health and safety or are interested in specific aspects of occupational health and safety, including the International Ergonomic Association (IEA), the Ergonomics Society of French-Speaking Countries (SELF), the International Council of Nurses (ICN), the Inter-American Safety Council (IASC), the International Association of Labour Inspection (IALA), the International Occupational Hygiene Association (IOHA), the International Association on Agricultural Medicine and Rural Health (IAAMRH), the International Association of Public and Rural Health, the Latino-American Association of Occupational Safety and Hygiene (ALASEHT), the International Federation of Associations of Specialists in Occupational Safety and Industrial Hygiene, the European Association of Schools of Occupational Medicine, the World Federation of Associations of Clinical Toxicology and Poison Control Centres, and the International Safety Council, a global subsidiary of the US National Safety Council.

Another group of non-governmental organizations consists of those having standardization as their objective, such as the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) and the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC). ISO is discussed in a separate article in this chapter.

International employers’ and workers’ organizations play a significant role in defining occupational health and safety policies and priorities at the international level. Their involvement is important because national labour laws and regulations make employers responsible for protection against occupational hazards, and the most concerned are the workers themselves, since it is their health and safety that are at risk. A number of employers’ and workers’ international organizations are concerned with occupational safety and health taken as a whole, including the International Employers Organization (IOE), the Union of Industrial and Employers Confederations of Europe (UNICE), the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU), the World Confederation of Labour (WCL), and the World Federation of Trade Unions (WFTU). There are many sectoral international trade union organizations that deal with specific aspects, such as the International Confederation of Chemical, Energy, Mine and General Workers’ Union (ICEM), the International Metal Workers Federation (IMF), the International Federation of Building and Wood Workers (IFBWW), the International Federation of Plantation, Agricultural and Allied Workers, and the International Federation of Commercial, Clerical and Technical Employees (FIET). There also exist regional organizations, such as the Organization of African Trade Union Unity (OATUU) and the European Confederation of Trade Unions (ECTU), which has established a European Trade Union Technical Bureau for Occupational Safety and Health (TUTB). These organizations have a wide variety of activities, in particular concerning the dissemination of information, technical advice, and training in occupational health and safety.

Producers, manufacturers, and operators are also active in the field of occupational safety and health, either through their associations or through institutes and bodies that they have established, such as the International Council of Chemical Associations (ICCA), the European Council of Chemical Manufacturers Federations (CEFIC), the International Group of National Associations of Agrochemical Manufacturers (GIFAP), the International Air Transport Association (IATA), the World Association of Nuclear Power Plant Operators (WANO), the Illuminating Engineering Society (IES), the Asbestos International Association (AIA), the International Fiber Safety Group (IFSG), and the Viral Hepatitis Prevention Board (action on hepatitis B as an occupational hazard). In addition, a number of institutions and international bodies established by producers, manufacturers and their organizations develop activities relating to the protection of the environment and environmental health, which may include occupational health to some extent, such as the International Centre for Industry and the Environment (ICIE), the International Council on Metals and the Environment (ICME), the International Primary Aluminum Institute (IPAI), and the Oil Companies International Study Group for Conservation of Clean Air and Water (CONCAWE).

Finally, there are many international non-governmental organizations established by scientists, professional associations or groups having similar scientific, humanitarian or economic interests that do not have direct interests in occupational health but are dealing with scientific, technical, medical or social issues that are relevant to occupational health and safety, such as the World Medical Association (WMA), the Council for International Organizations of Medical Sciences (CIOMS), the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC), the International Council for Building Research Studies and Documentation, the International Epidemiological Association, the International Society for Labour Law and Social Security, and the International Bureau for Epilepsy (IBE), which prepared a Code of Principles of Good Practice for Employing People with Epilepsy.

Joint Programmes in International Cooperation

It is interesting to examine how international organizations complement each other and mobilize their various means of action to combat specific occupational hazards. As regards noise and vibration, for example, the IEC provides standards for measuring equipment, the ISO defines methods of measurement, the WHO provides health criteria, the ILO recommends exposure limits in its Code of Practice on Noise and Vibration and defines a general approach and strategy in its Working Environment (Air Pollution, Noise and Vibration) Convention, 1977 (No. 148) and Recommendation (No. 156).

The role of international organizations is increasingly characterized by cooperation within the framework of international programmes or joint ventures on specific subjects involving the countries themselves and inter-governmental and non-governmental organizations. International cooperation in protection against ionizing radiation and in promotion of chemical safety are two examples of such activities.

In the field of protection against ionizing radiation, the International Commission on Radiological Protection (ICRP) and the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) provide the scientific input. The ILO adopted in 1960 the Radiation Protection Convention (No. 115) and Recommendation (No. 114), which make specific reference to the guidance issued by the ICRP. More guidance is given in a number of codes of practice prepared by the IAEA, cosponsored by the ILO and the WHO, where appropriate, and in the ILO Code of Practice on Radiation Protection (ionizing radiation), 1987. These are supplemented by guides, manuals, training materials and technical documents published essentially by the IAEA and by the Nuclear Energy Agency of the OECD. Technical cooperation activities in this field are mainly carried out by the IAEA; other organizations are involved when needed.

In 1990, an important step towards international harmonization of radiation safety took place: the Inter-Agency Committee on Radiation Safety (IACRS) was established as a forum for consultation on and collaboration in radiation safety matters between international organizations. A joint secretariat was set up to revise the 1982 edition of the IAEA/ILO/WHO/NEA-OECD Basic Safety Standards for Radiation Protection. Six international organizations—the FAO, the IAEA, the ILO, the Nuclear Energy Agency of the OECD, the PAHO, and the WHO—joined to prepare international standards with the aim of helping their member States in drafting their own laws. Under the leadership of the IAEA, a major process of consultations with countries and among intergovernmental and non-governmental organizations, including employers’ and workers’ organizations, led to the elaboration of the International Standards for Protection against Ionizing Radiation and the Safety of Radiation Sources (IAEA 1994). These international standards can be regarded as unified standards for the UN system.

International cooperation in promoting chemical safety illustrates how international organizations interact in order to respond to concerns of people in the world expressed by the international community, and how general declarations of principles adopted by intergovernmental conferences are translated into programmes of action and practical activities based on scientific knowledge. There is a consensus that the evaluation of chemicals should address concerns about occupational exposures, public exposures, and the environment. To carry out risk assessments in an international framework is an asset for mobilizing limited expertise and resources. This led to the establishment in 1980 of the International Programme on Chemical Safety (IPCS) by the WHO, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the ILO. The commitment of the three cooperating organizations to collaborate in the IPCS was expressed through a memorandum of understanding in 1988 that establishes the objectives of the IPCS. The technical work of the IPCS relies on a network of national and international institutions that participate in its activities and are responsible for particular tasks. The programme maintains close and efficient working relations with several other intergovernmental and non-governmental organizations, associations, and professional bodies that have important activities in the field of chemical safety.

The United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, recognized the need to ensure the environmentally sound management of toxic chemicals and identified six programme areas for international cooperation:

  1. expanding and accelerating the international assessment of chemical risks
  2. harmonization of classification and labelling of chemicals
  3. information exchange on toxic chemicals and chemical risks
  4. establishment of risk reduction programmes
  5. strengthening of national capabilities and capacities for management of chemicals
  6. prevention of illegal international traffic of toxic and dangerous products.


This was followed in 1994 by an International Conference on Chemical Safety (Stockholm Conference 1994), which established the Intergovernmental Forum on Chemical Safety, identified a number of priorities for action, and invited intergovernmental organizations to participate in an expanded collaborative programme on chemical safety. An Inter-Organization Programme for the Sound Management of Chemicals (IOMC) was established in which the WHO, ILO, UNEP, FAO, UNIDO and OECD participate. It includes an Inter-Organization Coordinating Committee (IOCC), which ensures the coordination of activities on chemical safety carried out by the participating organizations, individually or jointly, and follows up the implementation of the recommendations of UNCED.

There are signs of an increasing trend to mobilize expertise and resources within the framework of joint activities. Such is the case, for example, in the field of training and information exchange in occupational health and safety. As regards biological safety, cooperation was developed between the UNIDO, the UNEP, the WHO and the FAO, and some activities were carried out within the framework of the IPCS. The UNIDO has been designated to follow up Chapter 16 of Agenda 21 (environmentally sound management of biotechnology) of the Rio Conference, to catalyze joint activities and programmes, and to develop common UN system strategies on biotechnology. The OECD has a programme on environmental aspects of biotechnology. The European Directive concerning the protection of workers against biological agents at work (90/679 and 93/88) was adopted in 1990 and modified in 1993. In 1993, the International Labour Conference of the International Labour Organization adopted a resolution concerning exposure to and safety in the use of biological agents at work that indicates that the issue should be studied, including the need for new international instruments (convention, recommendation, or both) to minimize the risks to workers, the public and the environment.

Two additional examples concern the protection of workers against non-ionizing radiation and the harmonization of chemical classification and labelling systems. Environmental health criteria documents on non-ionizing radiation were prepared by the WHO, the UNEP and the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection (ICNIRP). A broader cooperation on protection against non-ionizing radiation, including occupational exposure, is now developing, which includes the ILO, the Commission of the European Union, the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC), the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) and the Scientific Committee on Radiation and Work of the ICOH. The harmonization of chemical classification and labelling systems is a field where extensive cooperation is promoted, under the leadership of the ILO, among countries, intergovernmental organizations (e.g., OECD; the European Union), non-governmental organizations (employers’ and workers’ organizations; international consumer and environmental protection associations), the UN Committee of Experts on Transport of Dangerous Goods, the FAO, the UNEP, the WHO, the IMO and the ICAO.

There are many other fields where new, flexible forms of international cooperation among countries and international organizations are emerging or could be developed, such as occupational stress and combating occupational lung diseases, in particular silicosis. International networking for occupational health and safety is developing increasingly with objectives such as coordinating research. It would be an advantage if an international network for occupational health and safety could be developed on the basis of existing structures in international organizations that could be interconnected, such as the Collaborating Centres of WHO, the Scientific Committees of ICOH, the International Sections of ISSA, the National Correspondents of IRPTC, the contact points of the OECD Complementary Information Procedure, the Participating Institutions of IPCS, the National and Collaborating Centres of the ILO International Occupational Safety and Health Information Centre (CIS), and the designated bodies of the ILO International Occupational Safety and Health Hazard Alert System.

Common Goals and Complementary Approaches in Occupational Health

In the field of occupational health, the ultimate goals of the WHO and the ILO are the same: to protect and promote the health of the workers in all occupations. Policy guidance is given by the ILO on the basis of its international Conventions and Recommendations on occupational health and safety and by the WHO through the resolutions adopted by the World Health Assembly concerning workers’ health and the primary health care approach that it advocates.

Since the Primary Health Care Conference in Alma-Ata in 1978, the WHO workers’ health programme has attempted to extend its health protection and health promotion activities to cover all people at work, paying special attention to the underserved and the vulnerable working populations. The 40th World Health Assembly requested the Director-General of the WHO:

  1. to promote the implementation of the workers’ health programme, as part of the national health system based on primary health care, in close cooperation with other relevant programmes, non-governmental organizations, and all United Nations agencies
  2. to elaborate guidelines on primary health care in the workplace, addressed particularly to the underserved working populations and including the educational materials needed at various levels
  3. to develop guidelines on health promotion in the workplace in cooperation with the WHO collaborating centres
  4. to promote regional activities in workers’ health where appropriate.


In October 1994, the Second Meeting of the Network of Collaborating Centres in Occupational Health (52 research and expert institutions from 35 countries) adopted a “Global Strategy on Occupational Health for All” and recommended that this document be submitted for consideration by the WHO to be converted into the WHO “Global Strategy on Occupational Health for All”. This was done in May 1996, with the support of the ILO.

The ILO Conventions and Recommendations on occupational safety and health define the rights of the workers and allocate duties and responsibilities to the competent authority, the employers and the workers in the field of occupational safety and health. The ILO Conventions and Recommendations adopted by the International Labour Conference, taken as a whole, constitute the International Labour Code, which defines minimum standards in the labour field. The ILO policy on occupational health and safety is essentially contained in two international Conventions and their accompanying Recommendations. The ILO Occupational Safety and Health Convention 1981 (No. 155) and Recommendation (No. 164), provide for the adoption of a national occupational safety and health policy and describe the actions needed at the national level and at the enterprise level to promote occupational safety and health and to improve the working environment. The ILO Occupational Health Services Convention 1985 (No. 161) and Recommendation (No. 171), provide for the establishment of occupational health services which will contribute to the implementation of the occupational safety and health policy and will perform their functions at the enterprise level.

In 1984, the International Labour Conference adopted a Resolution concerning the improvement of working conditions and environment, which recalled that the improvement of the working conditions and environment was an essential element in the promotion of social justice. It stressed that improved working conditions and improved environment are a positive contribution to national development and represent a measure of success of any economic and social policy. It spelled out the three fundamental principles that:

  • Work should take place in a safe and healthy working environment.
  • Conditions  of  work  should  be  consistent  with  workers’ well-being and human dignity.
  • Work should offer real possibilities for personal achievement, self-fulfilment, and service to society.


There are many similar features between the ILO strategy for the improvement of the working conditions and environment and the WHO primary health care approach. They rest on similar basic principles and they both:

  1. aim at all concerned, workers or the public
  2. define policies, strategies and means of action
  3. insist on the responsibility of each employer for the health and safety of the workers in his or her employment
  4. emphasize primary prevention, control of risk at the source, and health education
  5. give special importance to information and training
  6. indicate the need to develop an occupational health practice that is easily accessible to all and available at the workplace
  7. recognize the central place of participation—community participation in health programmes and workers’ participation in the improvement of the working conditions and the working environment.
  8. highlight the interactions between health environment and development, as well as between occupational safety and health and productive employment.


The current trend of globalization for the world economy, and regional integration, has increased interdependence and the need for cooperation between countries. This overview shows that there are common goals, approaches and policies in occupational health and safety. There is also a structure on which a global cooperation can be built. This is the objective of the Global Programme on Safety, Health and the Environment, to be launched by the ILO in 1998.



Tuesday, 15 February 2011 18:58

The United Nations and Specialized Agencies

* This article is adapted from Basic Facts About the United Nations  (United Nations 1992).

Origin of the United Nations

The United Nations was, in 1992, an organization of 179 nations legally committed to cooperate in supporting the principles and purposes set out in its Charter. These include commitments to eradicate war, promote human rights, maintain respect for justice and international law, promote social progress and friendly relations among nations, and use the Organization as a centre to harmonize their actions in order to attain these ends.

The United Nations Charter was written in the closing days of the Second World War by the representatives of 50 governments meeting at the United Nations Conference on International Organization in 1945. The Charter was drafted on the basis of proposals worked out by the representatives of China, France, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom and the United States. It was adopted and signed on 26 June 1945.

To millions of refugees from war and persecution, the United Nations has provided shelter and relief. It has acted as a major catalyst in the evolution of 100 million people from colonial rule to independence and sovereignty. It has established peace-keeping operations many times to contain hostilities and to help resolve conflicts. It has expanded and codified international law. It has wiped smallpox from the face of the planet. In the five decades of its existence, the Organization has adopted some 70 legal instruments promoting or obligating respect for human rights, thus facilitating an historic change in the popular expectation of freedom throughout the world.


The Charter declares that membership of the UN is open to all peace-loving nations which accept its obligations and which, in the judgement of the Organization, are willing and able to carry out these obligations. States are admitted to membership by the General Assembly on the recommendation of the Security Council. The Charter also provides for the suspension or expulsion of Members for violation of the principles of the Charter, but no such action has ever been taken.

Official Languages

Under the Charter the official languages of the United Nations are Chinese, English, French, Russian and Spanish. Arabic has been added as an official language of the General Assembly, the Security Council and the Economic and Social Council.


The United Nations is a complex network consisting of six main organs with a large number of related programmes, agencies, commissions and other bodies. These related bodies have different legal status (some are autonomous, some are under the direct authority of the UN and so on), objectives and areas of responsibility, but the system displays a very high level of cooperation and collaboration. Figure 1 provides a schematic illustration of the structure of the system and some of the links between the different bodies. For further information, reference should be made to: Basic Facts About the United Nations (1992).

Figure 1. The Charter established six principal organs of the United Nations


International Court of Justice

The International Court of Justice is the principal judicial organ of the UN. The Court is open to the parties to its Statute, which automatically includes all Members of the UN. Other States can refer cases to the Court under conditions laid down by the Security Council. In addition, the Security Council may recommend that a legal dispute be referred to the Court. Only States may be party to cases before the Court (i.e., the Court is not open to individuals). Both the General Assembly and the Security Council can ask the Court for an advisory opinion on any legal question; other organs of the UN and the specialized agencies, when authorized by the General Assembly, can ask for advisory opinions on legal questions within the scope of their activities (for example, the International Labour Organization could request an advisory opinion relating to an international labour standard).

The jurisdiction of the Court covers all matters provided for in the UN Charter or in treaties or conventions in force, and all other questions which States refer to it. In deciding cases, the Court is not restricted to principles of law contained in treaties or conventions, but may employ the entire sphere of international law (including customary law).

The General Assembly

The General Assembly is the main deliberative organ. It is composed of representatives of all Member States, each of which has one vote. Decisions on important questions, such as those on peace and security, admission of new Members and budgetary matters, require a two-thirds majority. Decisions on other questions are reached by a simple majority.

The functions and powers of the General Assembly include the consideration of and formulation of recommendations on the principles of cooperation in the maintenance of international peace and security, including disarmament and the regulation of armaments. The General Assembly also initiates studies and makes recommendations to promote international political cooperation, the development and codification of international law, the realization of human rights and fundamental freedoms for all, and international collaboration in the economic, social, cultural, educational and health fields. It receives and deliberates on reports from the Security Council and other UN organs; considers and approves the UN budget and apportions the contributions among Members; and elects the non-permanent members of the Security Council, the members of the Economic and Social Council and those members of the Trusteeship Council that are elected. The General Assembly also elects jointly with the Security Council the Judges of the International Court of Justice and, on the recommendation of the Security Council, appoints the Secretary-General.

At the beginning of each regular session, the General Assembly holds a general debate, in which Member States express their views on a wide range of matters of international concern. Because of the great number of questions which the General Assembly is called upon to consider (over 150 agenda items at the 1992 session, for example), the Assembly allocates most questions to its seven main committees:

  • First Committee (disarmament and related international security matters)
  • Special Political Committee
  • Second Committee (economic and financial matters)
  • Third Committee (social, humanitarian and cultural matters)
  • Fourth Committee (decolonization matters)
  • Fifth Committee (administrative and budgetary matters)
  • Sixth Committee (legal matters).


Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC)

ECOSOC was established by the Charter as the principal organ to coordinate the economic and social work of the UN and the specialized agencies and institutions. The Economic and Social Council serves as the central forum for the discussion of international economic and social issues of a global or inter-disciplinary nature and the formulation of policy recommendations on those issues, and works to promote respect for, and observance of, human rights and fundamental freedoms for all. ECOSOC may make or initiate studies and reports and recommendations on international economic, social, cultural, educational, health and related matters, and call international conferences and prepare draft conventions for submission to the General Assembly. Other powers and functions include the negotiation of agreements with the specialized agencies defining their relationship with the UN and the coordination of their activities, and consultation with NGOs concerned with matters with which the Council deals.

Subsidiary bodies

The subsidiary machinery of the Council includes functional and regional  commissions,  six  standing  committees  (for  example, the Committee on Non-Governmental Organizations and on Transnational Corporations) and a number of standing expert bodies on such subjects as crime prevention and control, development planning, and the transport of dangerous goods.

Relations with non-governmental organizations

Over 900 NGOs have consultative status with the Council, with varying levels of involvement. These NGOs may send observers to public meetings of the Council and its subsidiary bodies and may submit written statements relevant to the Council’s work. They may also consult with the UN Secretariat on matters of mutual concern.

Security Council

The Security Council has primary responsibility, under the Charter, for the maintenance of international peace and security. While other organs of the UN make recommendations to governments, the Council alone has the power to take decisions which Member States are obligated under the Charter to carry out.


The Secretariat, an international staff working at UN Headquarters in New York and in the field, carries out the diverse day-to-day work of the Organization. It services the other organs of the UN and administers the programmes and policies laid down by them. At its head is the Secretary-General, who is appointed by the General Assembly on the recommendation of the Security Council for a term of five years.

Trusteeship Council

In setting up an International Trusteeship System, the Charter established the Trusteeship Council as one of the main organs of the UN and assigned to it the task of supervising the administration of Trust Territories placed under the Trusteeship System. Major goals of the System are to promote the advancement of the inhabitants of Trust Territories and their progressive development towards self-government or independence.

The Role of the United Nations System in Occupational Health and Safety

While the improvement of working conditions and environment will normally be part of national policy to further economic development and social progress in accordance with national objectives and priorities, a measure of international harmonization is necessary to ensure that the quality of the working environment everywhere is compatible with workers’ health and welfare, and to assist Member States to this effect. This is, essentially, the role of the UN system in this field.

Within the UN system, many organizations and bodies play a role in the improvement of the working conditions and the working environment. The International Labour Organization (ILO) has a constitutional mandate to improve working conditions and environment to humanize work; its tripartite structure can ensure that its international standards have a direct impact on national legislation, policies and practices and is discussed in a separate article in this chapter.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has a mandate in occupational health derived from its Constitution, which identified WHO as “the directing and coordinating authority on international health work”, and stated WHO’s functions which include the “promotion of ...economic and working conditions and other aspects of environmental hygiene”. Additional mandates are derived from various resolutions of the World Health Assembly and Executive Board. WHO’s occupational health programme aims to promote the knowledge and control of workers’ health problems, including occupational and work-related diseases, and to cooperate with countries in the development of health care programmes for workers, particularly those who are generally underserviced. The WHO, in collaboration with the ILO, UNEP and other organizations, undertakes technical cooperation with Member States, produces guidelines, and carries out field studies and occupational health training and personnel development. The WHO has set up the GEENET—the Global Environmental Epidemiology Network—which includes institutions and individuals from all over the world who are actively involved in research and training on environmental and occupational epidemiology. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has been established as an independent research institute, but within the framework of the WHO. The statutes of the Agency set out its mission as “planning, promoting and developing research in all phases of the causation, treatment and prevention of cancer”. Since the start of its research activity, the Agency has devoted itself to studying the causes of cancer present in the human environment, in the belief that identification of a carcinogenic agent was the first and necessary step towards reducing or removing the causal agent from the environment, with the aim of preventing cancer that it might have caused. The Agency’s research activities fall into two main groups—epidemiological and laboratory-based experimental but there is considerable interaction between these groups in the actual research projects undertaken.

Besides these two organizations with a central focus on work and health, respectively, several UN bodies include health and safety matters within their specific sectoral or geographical functions:

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has the mandate to safeguard and enhance the environment for the benefit of present and future generations, including the working environment. It has a basic coordinating and catalytic function for environment in general within the UN system. It discharges this function through programme coordination and the support of activities by the Environment Fund. In addition to its general mandate, UNEP’s specific mandate with regard to the working environment stems from Recommendations 81 and 83 of the UN Conference on the Human Environment, and UNEP Governing Council Decisions requesting the Executive Director to integrate the principles and objectives related to the improvement of the working environment fully into the framework of the environment programme. UNEP is also required to collaborate with the appropriate organizations of workers and employers, in the development of a coordinated system-wide action programme on the working and living environment of workers, and with the UN bodies concerned (for example, UNEP cooperates with the WHO and the ILO in the International Programme on Chemical Safety).

UNEP maintains the International Register of Potentially Toxic Chemicals (IRPTC), which strives to bridge the gap between the world’s chemical knowledge and those who need to use it. UNEP’s network of environmental agreements is also having an ever-increasing international effect, and gathering momentum (for example, the historic Vienna Convention and the Montreal Protocol on the protection of the ozone layer).

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is concerned with hazards  resulting  from  ionizing  radiation  associated  with  the nuclear fuel cycle. The IAEA encourages and guides the development of peaceful uses of atomic energy, establishes standards for nuclear safety and environmental protection, aids member countries  through  technical  cooperation,  and  fosters  the  exchange of scientific and technical information on nuclear energy. The activities of the Agency in the area of radiological protection of workers involve the development of these standards; preparation of safety guides, codes of practice and manuals; holding of scientific meetings for exchange of information or preparation of manuals or technical guidebooks; organizing training courses, visiting seminars and study tours; development of technical expertise in developing Member States through the awards of research contracts  and  fellowships;  and  helping  the  developing  Member  States in the organization of radiation protection programmes through the provision of technical assistance, experts’ services, advisory missions, and advisory services on nuclear law regulatory matters.

The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the World Bank have included provisions on occupational safeguards in development assistance agreements. The UNDP is engaged in a large number of projects designed to assist developing countries to build up their nascent economies and raise their living standards. Several thousand internationally recruited experts are kept steadily at work in the field. Several amongst these projects are devoted to the improvement of occupational safety and health standards in industry and other walks of economic life, the implementation of which is entrusted to the ILO and WHO. Such field projects may range from the provision of short-term consultancy to more massive assistance over a period of several years for the establishment of fully fledged occupational safety and health institutes designed to provide training, applied field research and direct service to places of employment.

The International Maritime Organization (IMO) deals with the safety of workers on board ships. IMO provides a forum for member governments and interested organizations to exchange information and endeavour to solve problems connected with technical, legal and other questions concerning shipping and the prevention of marine pollution by ships. IMO has drafted a number of conventions and recommendations which governments have adopted and which have entered into force. Among them are international conventions for the safety of life at sea, the prevention of marine pollution by ships, the training and certification of seafarers, the prevention of collisions at sea, several instruments dealing with liability and compensation, and many others. IMO has also adopted several hundred recommendations dealing with subjects such as the maritime transport of dangerous goods, maritime signals, safety for fishermen and fishing vessels, and the safety of nuclear merchant ships.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) has a role in protecting agricultural workers against hazards resulting from the use of pesticides, farm tools and machinery. A number of activities of FAO are directly or indirectly concerned with occupational safety and health and ergonomics in agricultural, forestry and fishery work. In fishery activities, FAO collaborates at the secretariat level with the ILO and the IMO on the IMO Sub-Committee on Safety of Fishing Vessels and participates actively in the work of the IMO Sub-Committee on Standards of Training and Watchkeeping. FAO collaborates with ILO in regard to conditions of work in the fishing industry. In forestry activities, the FAO/ECE/ILO Committee on Forest Working Techniques and Training of Forest Workers deals at the interagency level with health and safety matters. Field projects and publications in this area cover such aspects as safety in logging and industry and heat stress in forest work.

In the agricultural field some of the diseases of economic importance in livestock also present hazards to persons handling livestock  and  animal  products  (e.g.,  brucellosis,  tuberculosis, leptospirosis, anthrax, rabies, Rift Valley fever). For these disease-related activities, close liaison is maintained with WHO through joint committees. FAO is also concerned with the harmonization of registration requirements for pesticides and the assessment of pesticide residues in food and in the environment. As regards atomic energy in food and agriculture, programmes are coordinated with the IAEA in order to assist scientists of developing countries to make safe and effective use of relevant isotope techniques (e.g., the use of radio-labelled enzyme substrates for detecting occupational exposure to insecticides).

The UN Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) aims to accelerate the industrial development of developing countries. It is concerned with occupational safety and health hazards, environment and hazardous waste management in relation to the industrialization process.

Regional UN Economic Commissions play a role in promoting more effective and harmonized action within their regions.

The UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) is concerned with the occupational aspects of the international transfer of goods, services and technology.



Tuesday, 15 February 2011 19:00

International Labour Organization

The ILO is one of 18 specialized agencies of the United Nations. It is the oldest international organization within the UN family, and was founded by the Versailles Peace Conference in 1919 after the First World War.

Foundation of the ILO

Historically, the ILO is the outgrowth of the social thought of the 19th century. Conditions of workers in the wake of the industrial revolution were increasingly seen to be intolerable by economists and sociologists. Social reformers believed that any country or industry introducing measures to improve working conditions would raise the cost of labour, putting it at an economic disadvantage compared to other countries or industries. That is why they laboured with such persistence to persuade the powers of Europe to make better working conditions and shorter hours of work the subject of international agreements. After 1890 three international conferences were held on the subject: the first was convened jointly by the German emperor and the Pope in Berlin in 1890; another conference held in 1897 in Brussels was stimulated by the Belgian authorities; and a third, held in 1906 in Bern, Switzerland, adopted for the first time two international agreements on the use of white phosphorus (manufacturing of matches) and on the ban of night work in industry by women. As the First World War had prevented any further activities on the internationalization of labour conditions, the Peace Conference of Versailles, in its intention to eradicate the causes of future war, took up the goals of the pre-war activities and established a Commission on International Labour Legislation. The elaborated proposal of the Commission on the establishment of an international body for the protection of workers became Part XIII of the Treaty of Versailles; to this day, it remains the charter under which the ILO operates.

The first International Labour Conference was held in Washington DC, in October 1919; the Permanent Secretariat of the Organization—the International Labour Office—was installed in Geneva, Switzerland.

The Constitution of the International Labour Organization

Permanent peace worldwide, justice and humanity were and are the motivations for the International Labour Organization, best expressed in the Preamble to the Constitution. It reads:

Whereas universal and lasting peace can be established only if it is based upon social justice;

And whereas conditions of labour exist involving such injustice, hardship and privation to large numbers of people as to produce unrest so great that the peace and harmony of the world are imperilled; and an improvement of those conditions is urgently required, as for example, by

    • the regulation of the hours of work, including establishment of a maximum working day and week,
    • the regulation of the labour supply,
    • the prevention of unemployment,
    • the provision of an adequate living wage,
    • the protection of the worker against sickness, disease and injury arising out of his employment,
    • the protection of children, young persons and women,
    • the provision for old age and injury,
    • the protection of the interests of workers when employed in countries other than their own,
    • the recognition of the principle of equal remuneration for work of equal value,
    • the recognition of the principle of freedom of association,
    • the organization of vocational and technical education and other measures;


                        Whereas also the failure of any nation to adopt humane conditions of labour is an obstacle in the way of other nations which desire to improve the conditions in their own countries;

                        The High Contracting Parties, moved by sentiments of justice and humanity as well as by the desire to secure the permanent peace of the world, and with a view to attaining the objectives set forth in this Preamble, agree to the following Constitution of the International Labour Organisation. …”

                        The aims and purposes of the International Labour Organization in a modernized form are embodied in the Philadelphia Declaration, adopted in 1944 at the International Labour Conference in Philadelphia, USA. The Declaration is now an Annex to the Constitution of the ILO. It proclaims the right of all human beings “to pursue both their material well being and their spiritual development in conditions of freedom and dignity, of economic security and equal opportunity”. It further states that “poverty anywhere constitutes a danger to prosperity everywhere”.

                        The task of the ILO as determined in Article 1 of the Constitution is the promotion of the objects set forth in the Preamble and in the Philadelphia Declaration.

                        The International Labour Organization and its Structure

                        The International Labour Organization (ILO) is composed of 173 States. Any member of the United Nations may become a member of the ILO by communicating to the Director-General of the ILO its formal acceptance of the obligations of the Constitution. Non-Member States of the UN may be admitted by a vote of the International Labour Conference (Switzerland is a member of the ILO but not, however, of the UN) (Constitution, Article 1). Representation of Member States at the ILO has a structure which is unique within the UN family. In the UN and in all other specialized UN agencies, representation is only by government personnel: ministers, their deputies, or authorized representatives. However, at the ILO the concerned groups of society are part of the Member States’ representation. Representatives consist of government delegates, generally from the ministry of labour, and delegates representing the employers and the workers of each of the members (Constitution, Article 3). This is the ILO’s fundamental concept of tripartism.

                        The International Labour Organization consists of:

                          • the International Labour Conference, an annual Conference of representatives of all members
                          • the Governing Body, composed of 28 government representatives, 14 employers’ representatives, and 14 workers’ representatives
                          • the International Labour Office—the permanent secretariat of the organization—which is controlled by the Governing Body.


                              The International Labour Conference—also called the World Parliament of Labour—meets regularly in June each year with about 2,000 participants, delegates and advisers. The agenda of the Conference includes the discussion and adoption of international agreements (the ILO’s Conventions and Recommendations), the deliberation of special labour themes in order to frame future policies, the adoption of Resolutions directed towards action in Member States and instructions to the Director-General of the Organization on action by the Office, a general discussion and exchange of information and, every second year, the adoption of a biennial programme and budget for the International Labour Office.

                              The Governing Body is the link between the International Labour Conference of all Member States and the International Labour Office. In three meetings per year, the Governing Body executes its control over the Office by screening work progress, formulating instructions to the Director-General of the Office, adopting the output of Office activity such as Codes of Practice, monitoring and guiding financial affairs, and preparing the agendas for future International Labour Conferences. Membership of the Governing Body is subject to election for a three-year term by the three groups of Conference Representatives—governments, employers and workers. Ten government members of the Governing Body are permanent members as representatives of States of major industrial importance.


                              All the decision-making mechanisms of the ILO follow a unique structure. All decisions of Member representation are taken by the three groups of representatives, namely by the government representatives, the employers’ representatives and the workers’ representatives of each Member State. Decisions on the substance of work in the Conference Committees on International Conventions and Recommendations, in the Meeting of Experts on Codes of Practice, and in the Advisory Committees on conclusions regarding future labour conditions, are taken by members of the Committees, of which one-third represent governments, one-third represent employers and one-third represent workers. All political, financial and structural decisions are taken by the International Labour Conference (ILC) or the Governing Body, in which 50% of the voting power lies with government representatives (two per Member State in the Conference), 25% with employers’ representatives, and 25% with workers’ representatives (one for each group of a Member State in the Conference). Financial contributions to the Organization are paid solely by the governments, not by the two non-governmental groups; for this reason only governments comprise the Finance Committee.

                              The Conventions

                              The International Labour Conference has from 1919 to 1995 adopted 176 Conventions and 183 Recommendations.

                              Some 74 of the Conventions deal with working conditions, of which 47 are on general conditions of work and 27 are on safety and health in a narrow sense.

                              The subjects of the Conventions on general conditions of work are: hours of work; minimum age for admission to employment (child labour); night work; medical examination of workers; maternity protection; family responsibilities and work; and part time work. In addition, also relevant to health and safety are ILO Conventions aimed at eliminating discrimination against workers on various grounds (e.g., race, sex, disability), protecting them from unfair dismissal, and compensating them in case of occupational injury or disease.

                              Of the 27 Conventions on safety and health, 18 were adopted after 1960 (when decolonization led to a large increase in ILO membership) and only nine from 1919 to 1959. The most ratified Convention in this group is the Labour Inspection Convention, 1947 (No. 81), which has been ratified by more than 100 Member States of the ILO (its corollary for agriculture has been ratified by 33 countries).

                              High numbers of ratification can be one indicator of commitment to improving working conditions. For instance Finland, Norway and Sweden, which are famous for their safety and health record and which are the world’s showcase of safety and health practice, have ratified almost all Conventions in this field adopted after 1960.

                              The Labour Inspection Conventions are complemented by two further basic standards, the Occupational Safety and Health Convention, 1981 (No. 155) and the Occupational Health Services Convention, 1985 (No. 161).

                              The Occupational Safety and Health Convention establishes the framework for a national conception of safety and health constituting a model of what the safety and health law of a country should contain. The framework directive of the EU on safety and health follows the structure and contents of the ILO Convention. The EU directive has to be transposed into national legislation by all 15 members of the EU.

                              The Occupational Health Services Convention deals with the operational structure within enterprises for the implementation of safety and health legislation in companies.

                              Several Conventions have been adopted regarding branches of economic activity or hazardous substances. These include the Safety and Health in Mines Convention, 1995 (No. 176); the Safety and Health in Construction Convention, 1988 (No. 167); the Occupational Safety and Health (Dock Work) Convention, 1979 (No. 152); the White Lead (Painting) Convention, 1921 (No. 13); the Benzene Convention, 1971 (No. 136); the Asbestos Convention, 1986 (No. 162); the Chemicals Convention, 1990 (No. 170); and the Prevention of Major Industrial Accidents Convention, 1993 (No. 174).

                              Associated with these norms are: the Working Environment Convention, 1977 (No. 148) (Protection of Workers against occupational Hazards in the Working Environment due to Air Pollution, Noise and Vibration); the Occupational Cancer Convention, 1974 (No. 139); and the list of occupational diseases that is part of the Employment Injury Benefits Convention, 1964 (No. 121). The last revision of the list was adopted by the Conference in 1980 and is discussed in the Chapter Workers’ Compensation, Topics in.

                              Other safety and health Conventions are: the Marking of Weight Convention, 1929 (No. 27); the Maximum Weight Convention, 1967 (No. 127); the Radiation Protection Convention, 1960 (No. 115); the Guarding of Machinery Convention, 1963 (No. 119); and the Hygiene (Commerce and Offices) Convention, 1964 (No. 120).

                              During the early period of the ILO, Recommendations were adopted instead of Conventions, such as on anthrax prevention, white phosphorus and lead poisoning. However in recent times Recommendations have tended to complement a Convention by specifying details on implementing its provisions.

                              Contents of Conventions on Safety and Health

                              Structure and content of safety and health Conventions follow a general pattern:

                                • scope and definitions
                                • obligations of governments
                                • consultation with organizations of workers and employers
                                • obligations of employers
                                • duties of workers
                                • rights of workers
                                • inspections
                                • penalties
                                • final provisions (on conditions for entry into force, registrations of ratifications and denunciation).


                                                A Convention prescribes the task of government or government authorities in regulating the subject matter, highlights obligations of owners of enterprises, specifies the role of workers and their organizations through duties and rights, and closes with provisions for inspection and action against violation of the law. The Convention must of course determine its scope of application, including possible exemptions and exclusions.

                                                Design of Conventions concerning safetyand health at work

                                                The Preamble

                                                Each Convention is headed by a preamble referring to the dates and the item on the agenda of the International Labour Conference; other Conventions and documents related to the topic, concerns about the subject justifying the action; underlying causes; cooperation with other international organizations such as WHO and UNEP; the form of the international instrument as a Convention or Recommendation, and the date of the adoption and citation of the Convention.


                                                Wording of the scope is governed by flexibility towards implementation of a Convention. The guiding principle is that the Convention applies to all workers and branches of economic activity. However, in order to facilitate ratification of the Convention by all Member States, the guiding principle is often supplemented by the possibility of partial or total non-application in various fields of activity. A Member State may exclude particular branches of economic activity or particular undertakings in respect of which special problems of a substantial nature arise from the application of certain provisions or of the Convention as a whole. The scope may also foresee step by step implementation of provisions to take into account existing conditions in a country. These exclusions reflect also the availability of national resources for the implementation of new national legislation on safety and health. General conditions of exclusion are that a safe and healthy working environment is otherwise attached by alternative means and that any decision on exclusion is subject to consultation with employers and workers. The scope also includes definitions of terms used in the wording of the international instrument such as branches of economic activity, workers, workplace, employer, regulation, workers’ representative, health, hazardous chemical, major hazard installation, safety report and so forth.

                                                Obligations of governments

                                                Conventions on safety and health establish as a first module the task for a government to elaborate, implement and review a national policy relating to the contents of the Convention. Organizations of employers and workers must be involved in the establishment of the policy and the specification of aims and objectives. The second module concerns the enactment of laws or regulations giving effect to the provisions of the Convention and the enforcement of the law, including the employment of qualified personnel and the provision of support for the staff for inspection and advisory services. Under Articles 19 and 22 of the ILO Constitution, governments are also obliged to report regularly or on request to the International Labour Office on the practice of implementation of the Convention and Recommendation. These obligations are the basis for ILO supervisory procedures.

                                                Consultations with organizations of employers and workers

                                                The importance of involvement of those who are directly associated with the implementation of regulations and the consequences of accidents is undoubted. Successful safety and health practice is based on collaboration and on incorporation of opinion and good will of the persons concerned. A Convention therefore provides that the government authorities must consult employers and workers when considering the exclusion of installations from legislation for step-by-step implementation of provisions and in the development of a national policy on the subject matter of the Convention.

                                                Obligations of employers

                                                The responsibility for the execution of legal requirements within an enterprise lies on the owner of an enterprise or his or her representative. Legal rights on workers’ participation in the decision-making process do not alter the primary responsibility of the employer. The obligations of employers as stated in Conventions include provision of safe and healthy working procedures; the purchase of safe machinery and equipment; the use of non-hazardous substances in work processes; the monitoring and assessment of airborne chemicals at the workplace; the provision of health surveillance of workers and of first aid; the reporting of accidents and diseases to the competent authority; the training of workers; the provision of information regarding hazards related to work and their prevention; cooperation in discharging their responsibilities with workers and their representatives.

                                                Duties of workers

                                                Since the 1980s, Conventions have stated that workers have a duty to cooperate with their employers in the application of safety and health measures and to comply with all procedures and practices relating to safety and health at work. The duty of workers may include the reporting to supervisors of any situation which could present a special risk, or the fact that a worker has removed himself/herself from the workplace in case of imminent and serious danger to his or her life or health.

                                                Rights of workers

                                                A variety of special rights of workers has been stated in ILO Conventions on safety and health. In general a worker is afforded the right to information on hazardous working conditions, on the identity of chemicals used at work and on chemical safety data sheets; the right to be trained in safe working practices; the right to consultation by the employer on all aspects of safety and health associated with the work; and the right to undergo medical surveillance free of charge and with no loss of earnings. Some of these Conventions also recognize the rights of workers’ representatives, particularly regarding consultation and information. These rights are reinforced by other ILO Conventions on freedom of association, collective bargaining, workers’ representatives and protection against dismissal.

                                                Specific articles in Conventions adopted in 1981 and later deal with the worker’s right to remove himself/herself from danger at his or her workplace. A 1993 Convention (Prevention of Major Industrial Accidents, 1993 (No. 174)) recognized the worker’s right to notify the competent authority of potential hazards which may be capable of generating a major accident.


                                                Conventions on safety and health express the needs for the government to provide appropriate inspection services to supervise the application of the measures taken to implement the Convention. The inspection requirement is supplemented by the obligation to provide the inspection services with the resources necessary for the accomplishment of their task.


                                                Conventions on safety and health often call for national regulation regarding the imposition of penalties in case of non-compliance with legal obligations. Article 9 (2) of the framework Occupational Safety and Health Convention, 1981 (No 155) states: “The enforcement system shall provide for adequate penalties for violations of the laws and regulations.” These penalties may be administrative, civil or criminal in nature.

                                                The Labour Inspection Convention, 1947 (No. 81)

                                                The Labour Inspection Convention of 1947 (No. 81) calls on States to maintain a system of labour inspection in industrial workplaces. It fixes government obligations in regard to inspection and sets out rights, duties and powers of inspectors. This instrument is complemented by two Recommendations (Nos. 81 and 82) and by the Protocol of 1995, which extends its scope of application to the non-commercial services sector (such as the public service and state-run enterprises). The Labour Inspection (Agriculture) Convention, 1969 (No. 129), contains provisions very similar to Convention No. 81 for the agricultural sector. ILO Maritime Conventions and Recommendations also address inspection of seafarers’ working and living conditions.

                                                The government has to establish an independent qualified corps of inspectors in sufficient number. The inspectorate must be fully equipped to provide good services. Legal provision of penalties for violation of safety and health regulations are an obligation of the government. Inspectors have the duty to enforce legal requirements, and to provide technical information and advice to employers and workers regarding effective means of complying with legal provisions.

                                                Inspectors are to report gaps in regulations to authorities and submit annual reports on their work. Governments are called on to compile annual reports giving statistics on inspections done.

                                                Rights and powers of inspectors are laid down, such as the right to enter workplaces and premises, to carry out examinations and tests, to initiate remedial measures, to issue orders on alteration of the installation and immediate execution. They have also the right to issue citations and institute legal proceedings in case of a violation of an employer’s duties.

                                                The Convention contains provisions on the conduct of inspectors, such as having no financial interest in undertakings under supervision, no disclosure of trade secrets and, of particular importance, confidentiality in case of complaints by workers, which means giving no hint to the employer about the identity of complainant.

                                                Promotion of progressive development by Conventions

                                                Work on Conventions tries to mirror law and practice in Member States of the Organization. However, there are cases where new elements are introduced which have so far not been the subject of widespread national regulation. The initiative may come from delegates, during the discussion of a norm in a Conference Committee; where justified, it may be proposed by the Office in the first draft of a new instrument. Here are two examples:

                                                (1)The right of a worker to remove himself or herself from work that poses an imminent and serious danger to his or her life or health.

                                                Normally people consider that it is a natural right to leave a workplace in case of danger to life. However this action may cause damage to materials, machinery or products—and can sometimes be very costly. As installations get more sophisticated and expensive, the worker might be blamed for having unnecessarily removed himself or herself, with attempts to make him or her liable for the damage. During discussion in a Conference Committee on the Safety and Health Convention a proposal was made to protect the worker against recourse in such cases. The Conference Committee considered the proposal for hours and finally found wording to protect the worker which was acceptable to the majority of the Committee.

                                                Article 13 of Convention No. 155 thus reads: “A worker who has removed himself from a work situation which he has reasonable justification to believe presents an imminent and serious danger to his life or health shall be protected from undue consequences in accordance with national conditions and practice”. The “undue consequences” include, of course, dismissal and disciplinary action as well as liability. Several years later, the situation was reconsidered in a new context. During the discussions at the Conference of the Construction Convention in 1987-88, the workers’ group tabled an amendment to introduce the right of a worker to remove himself or herself in case of imminent and serious danger. The proposal was finally accepted by the majority of Committee members under the condition that it was combined with a worker’s duty to immediately inform his or her supervisor about the action.

                                                The same provision has been introduced in the Chemicals Convention, 1990 (No. 170); a similar text is included in the Safety and Health in Mines Convention, 1995 (No. 176). This means that countries which have ratified the Safety and Health Convention or the Convention on Construction, Chemical Safety or Safety and Health in Mines must provide in national law for the right of a worker to remove himself or herself and to be protected against “undue consequences”. This will probably sooner or later lead to application of this right for workers in all sectors of economic activity. This newly recognized right for workers has in the meantime been incorporated in the basic EU Directive on Safety and Health Organization of 1989; all Member States of the EU were to have incorporated the right in their legislation by the end of 1992.

                                                (2)The right for a worker to have a medical examination instead of mandatory medical examinations.

                                                For many years national legislation had required medical examinations for workers in special occupations as a prerequisite for assignment to or continuation of work. Over time, a long list of mandatory medical examinations before assignment and at periodic intervals had been prescribed. This well-meaning intention is increasingly turning into a burden, however, as there may be too many medical examinations administered to one person. Should the examinations be recorded in a health passport of a worker for lifelong testimony to ill-health, as practised in some countries, the medical examination in the end could become a tool for selection into unemployment. A young worker having recorded a long list of medical examinations in his or her life due to exposure to hazardous substances may not find an employer ready to give him or her a job. The doubt may be too strong that this worker may sooner or later be absent too often because of illness.

                                                A second consideration has been that any medical examination is an intrusion into a person’s private life and therefore a worker should be the one to decide on medical procedures.

                                                The International Labour Office proposed, therefore, to introduce in the Night Work Convention, 1990 (No. 171) the right of a worker to have a medical examination instead of calling for mandatory surveillance. This idea won broad support and was finally reflected in Article 4 of the Night Work Convention by the International Labour Conference in 1990, which reads:

                                                1.At their request, workers shall have the right to undergo a health assessment without charge and to receive advice on how to reduce or avoid health problems associated with their work: (a) before taking up an assignment as a night worker; (b) at regular intervals during such an assignment; (c) if they experience health problems during such an assignment which are not caused by factors other than the performance of the night work.

                                                2.With the exception of a finding of unfitness for night work, the findings of such assessments shall not be transmitted to others without the worker’s consent and shall not be used to their detriment.

                                                It is difficult for many health professionals to follow this new conception. However, they should realize that a person’s right to determine whether to undergo a medical examination is an expression of contemporary notions of human rights. The provision has been already taken up by national legislation, for example in the 1994 Act on Working Time in Germany, which makes reference to the Convention. And more importantly, the EU Framework Directive on Safety and Health follows this model in its provisions on health surveillance.

                                                Functions of the International Labour Office

                                                The functions of the International Labour Office as laid down in Article 10 of the Constitution include the collection and distribution of information on all subjects related to the international adjustment of conditions of industrial life and labour with special emphasis on future international labour standards, the preparation of documents on the various items of the agenda for the meeting of the ILC (especially the preparatory work on contents and wording of Conventions and Recommendations), the provision of advisory services to governments, employers’ organizations and workers’ organizations of member states related to labour legislation and administrative practice, including systems of inspection, and the edition and dissemination of publications of international interest dealing with problems of industry and employment.

                                                Like any ministry of labour, the International Labour Office is made up of bureaus, departments and branches concerned with the various fields of labour policy. Two special institutes were established to support the Office and Member States: the International Institute for Labour Studies at ILO headquarters, and the International Training Centre of the ILO in Turin, Italy.

                                                A Director-General, elected by the Governing Body for a five-year term, and three Deputy Director-Generals, appointed by the Director-General, govern (as of 1996) 13 departments; 11 bureaus at headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland; two liaison offices with international organizations; five regional departments, in Africa, the Americas, Asia and the Pacific, the Arab States, and Europe, with 35 area and branch offices and 13 multi-disciplinary teams (a group of professionals of various disciplines who provide advisory services in Member States of a subregion).

                                                The Working Conditions and Environment Department is the Department in which the bulk of safety and health work is carried out. It comprises a staff of about 70 professionals and general service personnel of 25 nationalities, including professional experts in the multi-disciplinary teams. As of 1996, it has two branches: the Conditions of Work and Welfare Facilities Branch (CONDI/T) and the Occupational Safety and Health Branch (SEC/HYG).

                                                The Safety and Health Information Services Section of SEC/HYG maintains the International Occupational Safety and Health Information Centre (CIS) and the Occupational Safety and Health Information Support Systems Section. The work on this edition of the Encyclopaedia is housed in the Support Systems Section.

                                                A special unit of the Department was established in 1991: the International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour (IPEC). The new programme executes, jointly with Member States in all regions of the world, national programmes of activity against child labour. The programme is financed by special contributions of several Member States, such as Germany, Spain, Australia, Belgium, the United States, France and Norway.

                                                In addition, in the course of the review of the ILO’s major safety and health programme established in the 1970s, the International Programme for the Improvement of Working Conditions and the Environment—known under its French acronym PIACT—the International Labour Conference adopted in 1984 the PIACT Resolution. In principle, the Resolution constitutes a framework of operation for all action by the ILO and by Member States of the Organization in the field of safety and health:

                                                  • Work should take place in a safe and healthy working environment.
                                                  • Conditions of work should be consistent with workers’ well-being and human dignity.
                                                  • Work should offer real possibilities for personal achievement, self-fulfilment, and service to society.


                                                      Publications concerning workers’ health are published in the Occupational Safety and Health Series, such as Occupational Exposure Limits for Airborne Toxic Substances, a listing of national exposure limits of 15 Member States; or the International Directory of Occupational Safety and Health Services and Institutions, which compiles information on the safety and health administrations of Member States; or Protection of Workers from Power Frequency Electric and Magnetic Fields, a practical guide to provide information on the possible effects of electric and magnetic fields on human health and on procedures for higher standards of safety.

                                                      Typical products of the safety and health work of the ILO are the codes of practice, which constitute a kind of model set of regulations on safety and health in many fields of industrial work. These codes are often elaborated in order to facilitate the ratification and application of ILO Conventions. For example, the Code of Practice on Prevention of Major Industrial Accidents, whose objective is to provide guidance in the setting up of an administrative, legal and technical system for the control of major hazard installations in order to avoid major disasters. The Code of Practice on Recording and Notification of Occupational Accidents and Diseases aims at a harmonized practice in the collection of data and the establishment of statistics on accidents and diseases and associated events and circumstances in order to stimulate preventive action and to facilitate comparative work between Member States (these are just two examples from a long list). Within the field of information exchange two major events are organized by the Safety and Health Branch of the ILO: the World Congress on Occupational Safety and Health, and the ILO International Pneumoconiosis Conference (which is now called The International Conference on Occupational Respiratory Diseases).

                                                      The World Congress is organized every three or four years jointly with the International Social Security Association (ISSA) and a national safety and health organization in one of the ILO Member States. World Congresses have been held since the 1950s. Some 2,000 to 3,000 experts from more than 100 countries meet at these congresses in order to exchange information on good practices in safety and health and on modern trend setting, and to establish relations with colleagues from other countries and other parts of the world.

                                                      The Pneumoconiosis Conference has been organized by the ILO since the 1930s; the next is planned for 1997 in Kyoto, Japan. One of the outstanding outputs of these conferences is the ILO International Classification of Radiographs of Pneumoconiosis.

                                                      The ILO’s technical cooperation in the field of safety and health has many facets. Several projects assisted Member States in preparing new legislation on safety and health and in strengthening their inspection services. In other countries, support has been provided for the creation of safety and health institutes in order to promote research work and develop training programmes and activities. Special projects were designed and executed on mine safety and chemical safety, including the establishment of major hazard control systems. These projects may be targeted towards one Member State, or to a regional group of countries. The tasks at ILO headquarters include the assessment of needs, project development and design, identification of financial support from international funds and national aid programmes, selection and provision of technical expertise, procurement of equipment and planning, and the organization and implementation of study tours and fellowship programmes.

                                                      Standard setting, research, collection and dissemination of information and technical cooperation reflect the operational arms of the ILO. In active partnership with the Organization’s tripartite membership these activities reinforce the struggle for the goal of social justice and peace in the world.

                                                      This is why in 1969, at the 50th anniversary of the Organization, the work and achievements of the International Labour Organization were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.




                                                      Tuesday, 15 February 2011 19:03

                                                      ILO Conventions-Enforcement Procedures

                                                      A country ratifying an ILO Convention pledges to “take such action as may be necessary to make effective” its provisions (ILO Constitution, article 19(5)). There are several ways that other countries and workers’ and employers’ organizations (but not individuals) can take action to encourage a government to respect the obligations it has undertaken. An organization need only send a letter containing sufficient information to the Director-General, International Labour Office, 4 route des Morillons, 1211 Geneva 22, Switzerland (fax number 41-22-798-8685). The procedures described here are complemented by the ILO’s work to promote international labor standards, such as seminars and workshops carried out by regional advisers.

                                                      Article 22 procedures. A government must submit reports on the application of Conventions it has ratified to the International Labour Office (Article 22). The government is also bound to provide copies of those reports to the most representative organizations of employers and workers in the country (Article 23). These organizations can make comments on the reports and provide additional information on the application of an instrument. An independent Committee of Experts on the Application of Conventions and Recommendations (CEARC) examines the reports and any comments made, and it may then address comments to governments to recommend changes in law or practice or to note cases of progress. The CEARC in turn submits its report each year to the tripartite International Labour Conference. The Conference sets up an Applications Committee, which addresses selected cases before reporting to the plenary. The Conference report appeals to governments to respect the obligations they have undertaken by ratifying ILO Conventions and sometimes urges them to accept “direct contacts” missions, during which solutions can be sought in consultation with the government and workers’ and employers’ organizations in the country.

                                                      Article 24 procedures. Under this article of the ILO Constitution, any “industrial association of employers or of workers” may make a representation alleging that an ILO Member State has failed to observe any ILO Convention to which it is a party. To be receivable, a representation must come from such an organization, be in writing, refer to Article 24 of the ILO Constitution and indicate in which respect the Member State concerned has failed to secure the effective observance within its jurisdiction of a Convention (identified by name and/or number) it has ratified. The ILO Governing Body may then set up a committee to examine the representation, communicate it to the government for comment and prepare a report, which the Governing Body can order to be published. It may also lead to a direct contacts mission. Where a government has not acted on the report of an Article 24 representation, the Governing Body may initiate the complaint procedure provided by Article 26 of the ILO Constitution.

                                                      Article 26 procedures. This article of the ILO Constitution permits complaints to be filed with the International Labour Office against a Member State which has allegedly failed to secure the observance of a Convention it has ratified. A complaint may be lodged by another Member State having also ratified the same Convention, by a delegate (government, employer or worker) to the International Labour Conference or by the Governing Body of the ILO. The Governing Body may appoint a Commission of Inquiry to consider the complaint and report back to it. The Commission of Inquiry’s findings of fact and recommendations are then published. The recommendations may include a direct contacts mission. In case of disagreement as regards the recommendations of the Commission of Inquiry, a complaint may be referred to the International Court of Justice, whose decision is final.

                                                      Freedom of association procedures. With freedom of association and the right to engage in collective bargaining at the heart of membership of the ILO, it has established special procedures to deal with complaints alleging infringements of these rights. A Governing Body Committee on Freedom of Association examines complaints made by national or international organizations of employers or workers against any ILO Member State, even when it has not ratified the two main ILO Conventions on freedom of association and collective bargaining. This Committee can also recommend that a government accept a direct contacts mission to assist it in ensuring respect for these basic principles.

                                                      Effect. While the ILO has no police force or labor inspectorate empowered to order a workplace to be made safer, governments are sensitive to pleas that they fulfill the obligations they have undertaken in ratifying ILO Conventions. The public pressure brought to bear by use of the ILO procedures has in a number of cases led to changes in law and practice, and thus through them to an improvement of working conditions.



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