Advancing Safety Around the World

History, geography, religion, and culture are major influences on safe work applications in countries across the globe.

Fact: Workplace safety in industrialized nations such as the United States, Canada, and much of the European Union is more entrenched than in other regions of the world. For ease of reference, we will call these advanced safety countries.

The rest of the world can be divided into three additional categories: developing nations, Third World nations, and those countries that have regions or companies that span all three categories of workplace safety applications (See Fig.1).

One of the fundamental universal truths of safety is that “no one comes to work with the intention of getting hurt or of hurting anyone else. ”Upon first seeing some foreign workplaces, this may seem not to be the case, but it is true despite some of the conditions you see workers endure. By accepting this statement, we acknowledge that the major reason for varying levels of safety is the differences of safety awareness.

Advanced safety countries have a respected and intricate system of regulations and enforcement that is designed to add pressure on companies to provide safe workplaces. Companies in these countries know the cost of not adhering to safe work practices. Importantly, workers in these countries know the value of working safely because they are better educated about how to work safer and about their rights when it comes to safe work. In advanced safety countries, safety is planned for and budgeted for as a normal part of the operating function within organizations.

Developing countries do this only as required but have started to create legislation for safe workplaces, better worker housing, environmental protection, and so on. Generally speaking, though, these are ignored by local employers unless they are under scrutiny by the federal agency under whose control this portfolio falls, or unless the hiring company/agency (prime contractor) has a strong presence, such as in Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Yemen, etc.

Even in these countries, however, evidence can be found of employers failing to provide safe workplaces, equipment, and processes. It all depends on the beliefs of whoever is at the top of the ministry and/or company and how much effort (resources) they are willing to put toward safety.

A major influence on workplace safety in Third World countries is the poverty level. When people are facing starvation, they are compelled to accept work that is inherently risky and to work for companies that do not provide safety training or equipment. Governments of Third World countries and companies that invest in Third World projects must be consistent in their insistence on improved workplace safety conditions to have a long-term impact on improving workers’ safety. Unfortunately, corruption still plays a large role in many of these countries, or at least within the governmental and/or corporate structures of these countries.

Influence Abroad
Many Middle East companies, and by extension government agencies, are affiliated in one way or another with companies from advanced safety countries. Remember that, in these countries, the ruling monarch may not own everything but does control everything. In the development stages of industry in countries such as Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Qatar, companies such as Exxon Mobil, Shell,  BP, and ENI Group, among others, were partnered with ministries to develop resources and prepare their product for market. A good example of this type of relationship is Aramco, the Arabian American Oil Company, whose safety systems are as advanced as any advanced safety country. These partnering companies from advanced safety countries brought their safety management systems with them and inducted local personnel, managers, and governments in the proper application and cost/benefits of a well-organized and -monitored safety system.

Because the United States and Great Britain were the major influences in the development of resources in much of the world, their safety regulations and interpretations are commonly referenced in corporate and project documents and plans. As well, because both have the most complete regulations, standards, and interpretations for workplace safety, they are commonly viewed as the primary reference authority for safe work systems and applications in the developing world.

OHSAS 18000 and ISO 14000 have made a significant impact on international work sites as more companies become certified to these standards. OHSAS 18000 is an international occupational health and safety management system specification. It comprises two parts, 18001 and 18002, and embraces BS8800 and a number of other publications. ISO 14000 is a family of standards that address various aspects of environmental management. They provide guidelines for environmental management systems, labeling, auditing, performance evaluation, communication, and life cycle analysis.

There are numerous factors in examining safety applications in various worldwide locations, and each can have a vital impact on the extent of safe work practices at the field level. History, geography, weather, political system, conflict (past and present), religion, and culture of the specific location of the work site are the major influences on safe work applications around the world. So is whether the project is a World Bank-funded project where worker safety requirements are determined for each project and included in the loan agreement.

Good examples of history affecting safe work are the countries along the southern coast of the Persian/Arabian Gulf. Generally speaking, barely 50 years ago, these countries were isolated communities with a tribal-based social structure and their economy based on fishing and trading. “Prior to the discovery of oil, the region had been a hotbed for religious conflict, and wars over other rich resources and arable land.” Today, they are some of the wealthiest countries in the world, with their economy based on their oil and gas resources.

Political Challenges
From desert heat and sand to arctic ice and snow, and from the top of the Rocky Mountains to the Mississippi Delta, all of us know the challenges of geography when it comes to workplace safety. The same can be said for weather issues and safety on the job. We institute work/rest schedules for work in both hot and cold environments and use many other systems to ensure workers are protected from weather as much as possible.

The political climate impacts workplace safety just as much as the physical environment, and at times even more so. One of the best examples of political structure influencing workplace safety is Iran. In Iran, the president is not the most powerful person in the country. The above chart (Fig. 2) showing the operations and structure of Iranian politics illustrates its intricate nature.

“This complex and unusual political system combines elements of a modern Islamic theocracy with democracy.” Guiding the president and his actions are the Assembly of Experts (Majlis) and the Iran Guardian Council. The council consists of six theologians appointed by the Supreme Leader and six jurists nominated by the judiciary and approved by parliament. All laws and regulations passed by the Majlis must be approved by the Iran Guardian Council to ensure they conform to and are compatible with the Islamic canon and the Constitution of Iran. It can then be said that all workplace safety legislation in Iran has a foundation in Islamic canon.

As the senior consultant to the Head of HSE for the PARS Economic Zone in Southern Iran (a $20 billion-plus oil and gas development), I saw many suggestions that went unsupported because they were not in alignment with Islamic rule and tradition. That said, safety was a serious consideration, and during my time there, accident rates and severity rates were reduced dramatically. As it turned out, however, the Iranian government told all companies based in the country from which my employer was based to leave within three days. This illustrates another way that politics can affect workplace safety.

Some countries, such as Romania and Kazakhstan, are still struggling to free themselves from the effects of tyrannical rule. Shell, BP, Exxon Mobil, Chevron, ENI Group, and Parker Drilling are only a few of the companies providing leadership and guidance as the workforces in these countries begin to realize a safe workplace is possible, management does care about worker health and safety, safety appliances are available, and it is acceptable to ask for safer working conditions.

When Cultures Collide
When all of these factors are considered as a whole, and we try to describe what a country’s culture consists of, we can see all of these factors contribute to the culture of any given society. The word “culture” is like the word “love”: We all know what it means, but it is composed of many things. Both words describe a culmination of a variety of inputs.

At an international work site, culture takes on many meanings. Company culture of companies from advanced safety countries, company culture of companies from developing or Third World countries, country culture of workforces from a variety of countries, country culture of the host country, and culture of the specific region where the work is being done. Putting them all together at a specific location and at a point in time, a clash of cultures is inevitable.

To create a safe workplace in this multicultural setting takes a good understanding of the variety of cultures from which the participating companies and contracted workforces originate. It also takes a thorough knowledge of the culture of the region and country where the work is being done. A safety practitioner in this environment must know how safety fits within a typical organizational structure and be flexible in adapting this role within the various company cultures involved, without compromising the ethical application of safety at work. Safety practitioners also must have a complete knowledge of safety in their industry and be flexible in how it is implemented and acted on in any specific work site, again without compromising the ethical application of safety at work.

Working in an international work site, we always have to remember that just because a job or task is not being done according to the detailed requirements of OSHA or British standards, it is not by default unsafe. In developing or Third World countries, work activities must be constantly reviewed, and  JSAs and Hazard Identification protocols must constantly be done with an open mind so that local or imported work methods can be assessed as they relate to the objective of creating a safe site.

Those who try to enforce the safety culture of an advanced safety country in a developing country, Third World country, or on companies that come from these countries will be frustrated and ultimately will fail. The only effective long-term solution is through behavior-based safety systems that look at the long-term effects of training, reinforcement of safe work actions, and by mentoring those nationals who show promise and who want to start or further their career in safety. Any of these must be introduced through the local, culturally acceptable manner if they are to have any hope of success.

Next to passion and enthusiasm, creativity of the application and measurement of safety at work is the greatest tool a safety practitioner can take with him to a multicultural work site.

And a good sense of humor.

This article originally appeared in the February 2009 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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