Safety can be the hardest word
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CTA. 2001. Safety can be the hardest word. Spore 91. CTA, Wageningen, The Netherlands.
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Accidents in the field and on the farm require as much attention as the appalling lack of safety elsewhere in the food chain. For producers, processors and consumers worldwide, safety measures are often too little, too late and for the...
Accidents in the field and on the farm require as much attention as the appalling lack of safety elsewhere in the food chain. For producers, processors and consumers worldwide, safety measures are often too little, too late and for the unorganised too far away. We all need to eat, and we all need to live. Agriculture is what makes us what we are. Why then do we treat agriculture so badly? At one end of the food chain, in the consumer s shopping basket, there are shrill yelps about food safety. They are only part of the issue and, with all due respect, a small part of the safety equation. All along the food chain, from the plough to the plate, there is scant respect for the safety of those who produce and process food. Their health and safety is vital, and not only for themselves: without a safe production process, without safe producers, there are no safe consumers. Agriculture is not a romance. Among everything else it means to us, it is a rough, tough world of injury, disability, disease and death. It is the third most hazardous sector after mining and construction. About half of the world s 250 million workplace injuries are estimated to occur in agriculture. Each year, worldwide, according to estimates from the International Labour Office (ILO), 170,000 workers are killed in the agricultural sector. The sector employs half the world s labour force, with about 1.3 billion workers active in agricultural production. About 10 per cent (17,000) of these deaths take place in sub-Saharan Africa. The agricultural labour force in ACP States and other developing countries is known for its high levels of self-employment, although overall half is in some form of waged employment. Self-employed or not, no worker deliberately injures himself or herself, although many people will take highly dangerous shortcuts in their work, under pressure to produce and earn marginal incomes. But danger there is, partly rooted in a lack of safety awareness and education, partly in incomplete training and instructions, and in part in the age-old predominance of gain over sane . Danger! Farmers at work The high levels of fatalities and injuries in agriculture twice as high as most other sectors are due to its special conditions. Much agricultural work involves multiple tasks and multiple locations, most of them in the open air, exposing workers to climatic conditions. Much work is seasonal, with added urgency. Workers are in frequent or constant contact with animals and plants, and are exposed to bites, poisoning, infections, parasitic diseases, allergies and toxicity. The postures required in many agricultural tasks, coupled with ill-designed manual tools or mechanical equipment, lead to injury and disabilities. The levels of exposure to pesticides and other chemicals are renowned many small-scale farmers are unaware of the dangers of pesticides and have no practical access to either clear instructions or protective clothing. The safety position on formal, large-scale farms is often no better. The ILO reports many cases in Zimbabwe and Ethiopia where neither training nor protection is available to most workers, at least not to casual or temporary workers. Away from the field, the lack of safety is equally alarming. Small, ill-lit, ill-ventilated workplaces with poorly-protected equipment are often the icons of agro-processing plants, at least in the informal sector. The risks for the safety of workers, and the hygiene of the end-product, are serious. Read the rule-book As production intensifies, the techniques for crop cultivation and livestock rearing, food processing and distribution become more complex. The introduction of more machinery and numerous chemical compounds, from fertilisers to cleaning agents, each bring potentially harmful human and environmental effects in their wake. And yet the sector, and those agencies and legislative bodies which provide its enabling environment , are failing to accompany these changes with appropriate information, training and, to be blunt, safety legislation. There are already about twenty conventions on occupational safety and health (OSH) which have been adopted by the governments, employers and workers organisations which comprise the ILO. Countries such as Sweden and Finland have ratified 85% or more; most ACP States between four and none. Even where laws can be realistically applied, agriculture is often omitted from OSH legislation of many countries. In Kenya and Brazil, for example, labour laws apply to agriculture as well as to other industries but the laws of Ghana, Sierra Leone, Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo exclude agricultural workers completely or partially. The legislation of yet other countries has a wider scope: in Fiji, Namibia and South Africa, employers are required to safeguard the safety and health of people other than employees who might be affected by the work of the enterprise. It is the casual labourer and self-employed farmer who are least likely to be protected. In Ethiopia it is estimated that 80 per cent of national economic activity falls outside the Labour Code, consisting of small-scale and subsistence farming. Women often fall into these categories, working on self-employed smallholdings and as seasonal labourers. In all, more than 700 million agricultural workers worldwide, and more than 130 million in ACP countries, fall outside the theoretical or real protection of OSH legislation. Where there is no enforcer The well-known saying Safety begins at home applies in agriculture as much as in any other sector. The unacceptable numbers of occupational fatalities and injuries in agriculture could clearly be substantially reduced by a more general safety -mindedness among workers. This is a question of on-the-job training, to be sure, but also of general education. One by one, the measures are easy enough to list. How about encouraging blacksmiths to add covers to chopping machines, or involving women in designing lighter hand tools which cause less muscle strain? It is at the grassroots level that safety will take hold, but it is at other levels that it will be made possible. At a seminar on Safety and Health organised in Bamako, Mali, by the ILO, the International Union of Food workers (IUF) and the CTA in December 2000, participants called for action across the political and legislative stage, as well as by civil society and development bodies (more about this in Spore 92). Safety in agriculture is, though, virgin territory in terms of development policies; it has, quite simply, been neglected by many bodies of national and global governance for decades. That could be about to change, with a Safety and Health in Agriculture Convention being presented for adoption to the general conference of the ILO in June 2001. It is ambitious, it is overdue and, praised be its designers, it is inclusive. It insists that the specific needs of self-employed farmers, women, seasonal workers and young workers be addressed, and that they enjoy protection equivalent to that provided to other workers in agriculture. It does not, however, cover subsistence farming, forestry or agro-processing, the latter being covered in principle by industrial conventions. For those accustomed to working in the formal sector, whether government inspectors or trade union organisers, this convention will challenge attitudes and ways of work. The task of getting it adopted is in itself a massive challenge, as the participants to the Bamako seminar affirmed. The harder, and even more necessary, task is to find ways and means to implement it. We all need to eat, and we all need to be safe. [summary points] Among measures needed to promote occupational safety and health in agriculture: - school curriculum development and media campaigns on safety awareness - re-training of extension workers, agricultural engineers, government inspectorates and trade unions - incentives (credit, awards, prizes) for safe tools and equipment - promotion of safe use, storage and disposal of chemicals at all stages of agricultural production - strengthening enforcement capacity of national safety bodies - inclusion of national safety bodies in agricultural policy formulation and implementation - overall legislative framework, adoption of ILO Convention See 'Links' for access to Safety and Health information
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