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June 29, 2007

Occupational Safety and Health in ASEAN
Singapore and perhaps Kuala Lumpur apart, anyone who has spent time walking around the cities of ASEAN will be aware of the safety standards involved in most construction work. Workers perch on rickety bamboo cane towers, holding on by their legs as they struggle to reach difficult to access areas. Arc welding equipment is wielded overhead by workers who may bother to hold goggles in front of their eyes from time to time but are indifferent to the sparks falling on the pavements below. Reports of accidents and fatalities are rife and it is not hard to believe that a significant proportion of the 2.2 million workplace deaths that the International Labour Organization (ILO) has reported take place annually happen here.

Yet, slowly, and far from consistently, some improvements are taking place overall. It is difficult to compare countries directly because of their different types of industrial structure, their different reporting requirements and the ability to encourage employers to comply with the reporting requirements. Further, bearing in mind the changes to the world of work caused by industrialization, then it would be expected that more accidents would take place as more people are brought into an industrial and mechanized workplace.

However, there comes a point, at least so it is to be hoped, at which accountable governments are required to take action to reduce workplace accidents, to punish anyone who may be found to be guilty of negligence and to increase healthcare such that any accidents which do take place are ameliorated by rapid and efficient response, as well as subsequently making available workers’ compensation schemes. This process has already begun in Thailand and Malaysia, although Indonesia and Vietnam are still on the upwards slope of the process (and less developed ASEAN nations will still by slogging up the road for the foreseeable future).

The nature of injuries also varies according to the country concerned, reflecting the different types of economic activities that take place in each place. In Singapore, for example, noise-induced deafness appears to be the principal cause of injury, followed by industrial dermatitis and excessive absorption of chemicals; in Thailand, meanwhile, the biggest single cause of injury comes as a result of lifting or moving heavy objects, followed by contact dermatitis and ‘diseases from ergonomic hazards,’ which refer to injuries sustained as a result of the posture adopted to work or the actions required to do that work. In Vietnam, on the other hand, the main problem affects miners and results in lung disease. In any case, ASEAN-wide, it is the manufacturing sector in which the majority of workplace accidents take place and, given the composition of manufacturing workplaces, it is not surprising that it is young people who are disproportionately affected and also men rather than women. The limitations on data collection mean that it is difficult to verify whether young men are less willing to use safety precautions properly and, also, whether vulnerable groups such as illegal migrants are also disproportionately affected and also suffer from weaker health responses. It is also the case that government health inspectors generally find it much easier to gain access to larger and officially registered workplaces than smaller ones and those which are not properly registered as such. Consequently, there is again a chance that people working in such places may not receive appropriate levels of protection.

Each ASEAN member has developed its own, individualized OSH program, assisted by the ILO and other bodies. These programs are tailored for industrial structure and emergent issues. The ILO maintains these priority areas for developing OSH programs:

• Occupational injury and disease reporting systems should be strengthened to better understand the real magnitude of OSH problems and to establish responsive national policies for improvements.
•  Practical OSH measures are needed to protect vulnerable groups of workers, including youth and migrants.
• Participatory training methods focusing on simple, low-cost solutions should be utilized.
• Effective programs for hazardous occupations such as construction, mining, and agriculture should be further established and implemented.
• Stronger, more concerted actions by ASEAN Member Countries and the ASEAN Community are required to further accelerate the creation of safe, healthy, and competitive work environments throughout the region.
• Finally, given the identified problems with injury reporting systems and the data comparability issues across countries, ASEAN Member Countries should take advantage of their extensive experience and undertake joint studies of efficient occupational injury reporting systems for better analysis, comparison, and policy making.

It is clear that the role of government is central in ensuring that appropriate levels of OSH are created and policed. The private sector also has responsibility and, in addition, the need for visionary management which sees high levels of OSH as a competitive advantage, offering less down time, fewer long-term welfare requirements and more transparent forms of corporate social responsibility.
Data included in this story are derived from the ILO report Labour and Social Trends in ASEAN 2007: Integration, Challenges and Opportunities, which is available for free download at the ILO’s website (

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