Published: 26/04/2010

Unions around the world will be mobilizing again on April 28, each in its way highlighting the 360,000 annual workplace fatalities and 2 million deaths from occupational diseases. On April 28, as on every other day, some 960,000 workers will be injured in an accident at work, and some 5,300 workers will die of work-related diseases.

Flanked by an army of consultants and propagandists, employers increasingly promote the lie that workers are themselves to blame for this epidemic of illness and death. ‘Behavior based safety programs’ initially developed by the US insurance industry, later refined by chemical giant DuPont (“Better Living through Chemistry”), seek to divert attention from the organization of work, its methods, materials and hierarchies of time and space, to locate the source of blame with the individual worker. According to this scheme, it is unsafe behavior, rather than workplace hazards, which are at the root of this daily carnage.

Responsibility is shifted from the hazard to the individual: “Safety is everyone’s business”. In this scheme, you don’t need a comprehensive workplace health and safety program, and a union health and safety committee which empowers workers to identify hazards and work through their union to eliminate them. Accidents are individual lapses; what is important is to hit the coveted ‘zero accident’ target. Bonuses are linked to zero-accidents, and workers are encouraged to seek individual medical treatment outside occupational protection schemes. Employees can be medically screened to identify their alleged propensity for ‘unsafe behavior’.

In the run up to this year’s International Worker Memorial Day, there have been, as always, a succession of fatal accidents claiming many victims in enterprises – factories, mines, construction sites – which vaunted their ‘zero accident’ credentials. Many of the ‘zero accident’ practices described above are in force at Nestlé workplaces, singly or in combination. In its latest “Creating Shared Value Report” Nestlé states that “safety is non-negotiable”. As with so many other things, Nestlé has again got it wrong. Safety must be continuously negotiated, because new hazards arise with each change in the production process, and change is continuous. And negotiation requires strong unions, in each and every workplace.

You will find comprehensive global reporting, in the original languages, of union activity for April 28 on the website of the UK Hazards. As our contribution, the IUF this year would like to propose a global fight back against the insidious doctrine of ‘behavior based safety’. Its time to stop blaming the victim and again assert the absolute primacy of employer responsibility for health and safety on the job. Zero accidents can kill.