What Asian Businesses Need to Know About International OHS Agreements

I have previously presented a broad overview of national occupational health and worker safety laws and regulations in Asia and the Middle East. In this post, I follow up on that theme with an overview of key international OHS agreements applicable to businesses  operating in Asia.

The International Labour Organization (ILO), an agency of the UN, is the primary international body that is dealing directly or indirectly with international occupational safety and health issues. To that end, the ILO has adopted more than 40 multilateral legally binding standards (conventions) specifically dealing with occupational health and safety.

But, before we get into the details of which agreements are important to the HSE professional in Asia,  let's first review some of the jargon used in this field (definitions are primarily as used by the EU).

TermDefinition
AccessionAct whereby a State becomes a Party to an international agreement already negotiated and closed for signature. Accession has the same legal effect as ratification, although an acceding State has not signed the agreement.
Acceptance or ApprovalThe "acceptance" or "approval" of a treaty have the same legal effect as ratification and consequently express the consent of a state to be bound by a treaty.
Agreement a. Generic term for an international legally binding instrument. In this sense, encompasses several instruments, such as treaties, conventions, protocols or other forms of agreements.
b. May also be used as a specific term to designate international instruments that are “less formal”, thus corresponding to soft law and deal with a narrower range of subject-matter than treaties
Bilateral AgreementsAn agreement between two states which is only legally binding for these two states with the benefits typically not shared with other (third) countries. Note that there are literally thousands of such agreements between countries in Asia and some of these may directly or indirectly affect HSE issues. Key ones for the HSE professional to be aware of are typically associated with some form of trade agreements, which often have HSE clauses included. We are not discussing bilateral agreements in this blog post.
BindingAn instrument that entails an obligation (usually for States) under international law.
ComplianceFulfillment by a Party of its obligations under an international agreement.
Conventions a. Generic term for an international legally binding instrument between a member state of an international body (e.g., International Labour Office) and the international body.
b. May also be used as a specific term; now is generally used for formal multilateral treaties with a broad number of parties. Conventions are normally open for participation by the international community as a whole, or by a large number of states. Usually the instruments negotiated under the auspices of an international organization are entitled conventions (e.g. Convention on Biological Diversity of 1992). The same holds true for instruments adopted by an organ of an international organization (e.g. the 1981 ILO Safety and Health Convention).
DeclarationsThe term "declaration" is used for various international instruments. However, declarations are not always legally binding. The term is often deliberately chosen to indicate that the parties do not intend to create binding obligations but merely want to declare certain aspirations. An example is the 1992 Rio Declaration.
Multi-lateral Agreements An agreement to which three or more sovereign states are parties. Each party owes the same obligations to all other parties, except to the extent that they have stated reservations.
ProtocolThe term used for agreements less formal than those entitled treaty or convention.
RatificationThe international act whereby a state indicates its consent to be bound to an agreement.
Treaties(a) The term treaty has regularly been used as a generic term embracing all instruments binding at international law concluded between international entities, regardless of their formal designation. In order to speak of a "treaty" in the generic sense, an instrument has to meet various criteria. First of all, it has to be a binding instrument, which means that the contracting parties intended to create legal rights and duties. Secondly, the instrument must be concluded by states or international organizations with treaty-making power. Thirdly, it has to be governed by international law. Finally the engagement has to be in writing.
(b) Treaty as a specific term: There are no consistent rules when state practice employs the terms "treaty" as a title for an international instrument. Usually the term "treaty" is reserved for matters of some gravity that require more solemn agreements. The use of the term "treaty" for international instruments has considerably declined in the last decades in favour of other terms.

 Do We Really Need to Know About International OHS Agreements?

That's a good question.

In short, for most of these agreements – no.

This is because in international law, there is no general rule that companies are responsible for their internationally wrongful acts; rather, multilateral agreements generally impose obligations on states, not on companies.

However, in other cases the international agreements are enforced within the national legal system, so it is prudent of you to at least be aware of these agreements and their potential impacts on your operations.

What International OHS Agreements Do I Need to Be Aware Of?

Below are some of the key International OHS agreements that may affect your business, along with a brief description of each agreement.

Table 1: List of Key International OHS Agreements and Employer Obligations

AgreementDescription of Key Employer Requirements
ILO Safety and Health Convention, 1981• ensure that, so far as is reasonably practicable, the workplaces, machinery, equipment and processes under their control are safe and without risk to health
• ensure that, so far as is reasonably practicable, the chemical, physical and biological substances and agents under their control are without risk to health when the appropriate measures of protection are taken
• provide, where necessary, adequate protective clothing and protective equipment to prevent, so far as is reasonably practicable, risk of accidents or of adverse effects on health
• provide, where necessary, for measures to deal with emergencies and accidents, including adequate first-aid arrangements
• provide appropriate training in occupational safety and health
• the employer cannot require workers to return to a work situation where there is continuing imminent and serious danger to life or health.
• occupational safety and health measures shall not involve any expenditure for the workers
Protocol of 2002 to the Occupational Safety and Health Convention, 1981• recording and notification of occupational accidents, occupational diseases and, as appropriate, dangerous occurrences, commuting accidents and suspected cases of occupational diseases
Radiation Protection Convention, 1960 • ensure effective protection of workers, as regards their health and safety, against ionising radiation
Occupational Cancer Convention, 1974)• ensure that chemicals are labelled or marked as required and that chemical safety data sheets have been provided and are made available to workers
• ensure that any necessary precautions are taken when hazardous chemicals are used
• maintain a record of hazardous chemicals used at the workplace, cross-referenced to the appropriate chemical safety data sheets
• ensure that when chemicals are transferred into other containers or equipment, the contents are indicated in a manner which will make known to workers their identity, any hazards associated with their use and any safety precautions to be observed
• ensure that workers are not exposed to chemicals to an extent which exceeds exposure limits or other exposure criteria for the evaluation and control of the working environment;
• assess the exposure of workers to hazardous chemicals
• monitor and record the exposure of workers to hazardous chemicals when this is necessary to safeguard their safety and health
• assess risks arising from the use of chemicals at work, and shall protect workers against such risks by appropriate means
• limit exposure to hazardous chemicals so as to protect the safety and health of workers, provide first aid, and make arrangements to deal with emergencies
Working Environment (Air Pollution, Noise and Vibration) Convention, 1977 • take measures for the prevention and control of, and protection against, occupational hazards in the working environment due to air pollution, noise and vibration
Asbestos Convention, 1986 • take measures for the prevention and control of, and protection of workers against, health hazards due to occupational exposure to asbestos.
Chemicals Convention, 1990 • ensure that chemicals are labelled or marked as required and that chemical safety data sheets have been provided and are made available to workers
• ensure that any necessary precautions are taken when hazardous chemicals are used
• maintain a record of hazardous chemicals used at the workplace, cross-referenced to the appropriate chemical safety data sheets
• ensure that when chemicals are transferred into other containers or equipment, the contents are indicated in a manner which will make known to workers their identity, any hazards associated with their use and any safety precautions to be observed
• ensure that workers are not exposed to chemicals to an extent which exceeds exposure limits or other exposure criteria for the evaluation and control of the working environment;
• assess the exposure of workers to hazardous chemicals
• monitor and record the exposure of workers to hazardous chemicals when this is necessary to safeguard their safety and health
• assess risks arising from the use of chemicals at work, and shall protect workers against such risks by appropriate means
• limit exposure to hazardous chemicals so as to protect the safety and health of workers, provide first aid, and make arrangements to deal with emergencies
Prevention of Major Industrial Accidents Convention, 1993 • identify any major hazard installation based on a list of hazardous substances or of categories of hazardous substances or of both, together with their respective threshold quantities, in accordance with national laws and regulations or international standards
• in respect of each major hazard installation, establish and maintain a documented system of major hazard control, which includes provision for: identification and analysis of hazards and the assessment of risks; technical measures, including design, safety systems, construction, choice of chemicals, operation, maintenance and systematic inspection of the installation; organizational measures, including training and instruction of personnel, the provision of equipment in order to ensure their safety, staffing levels, hours of work, definition of responsibilities, and controls on outside contractors and temporary workers on the site of the installation; emergency plans and procedures; measures to limit the consequences of a major accident; consultation with workers and their representatives; improvement of the system, including measures for gathering information and analysing accidents and near misses
• prepare a safety report in the case of existing major hazard installations and/or in the case of any new major hazard installation, before it is put into operation
• inform the competent authority and other bodies designated for this purpose as soon as a major accident occurs
Hygiene (Commerce and Offices) Convention, 1964 • take appropriate precautions to ensure that all workplaces are safe and without risk of injury to the safety and health of workers
• provide a safe means of access to and egress from all workplaces
• take appropriate precautions to protect persons present at or in the vicinity of a construction site from all risks which may arise from such site
• specific articles are provided for: scaffolds and ladders; lifting appliances and gear; transport, earth-moving and materials-handling equipment; plant, machinery, equipment and hand tools; work at heights; excavations, shafts, earthworks, underground works and tunnels; cofferdams and caissons; compressed air; structural frames and formwork; work over water; demolition; lighting; electricity; explosives; health hazards; fire precautions; PPE and protective clothing; first aid; welfare; information and training; and reporting of accidents and diseases
Safety and Health in Mines Convention, 1995 (No. 176)• assess the risk and deal with it in the following order of priority: (a) eliminate the risk; (b) control the risk at source; (c) minimize the risk by means that include the design of safe work systems; and (d) in so far as the risk remains, provide for the use of personal protective equipment
• take all necessary measures to eliminate or minimize the risks to safety and health in mines, and in particular: ensure that the mine is designed, constructed and provided with electrical, mechanical and other equipment, including a communication system, to provide conditions for safe operation and a healthy working environment; ensure that the mine is commissioned, operated, maintained and decommissioned in such a way that workers can perform the work assigned to them without endangering their safety and health or that of other persons; take steps to maintain the stability of the ground in areas to which persons have access in the context of their work; whenever practicable, provide, from every underground workplace, two exits, each of which is connected to separate means of egress to the surface; ensure the monitoring, assessment and regular inspection of the working environment to identify the various hazards to which the workers may be exposed and to assess their level of exposure; ensure adequate ventilation for all underground workings to which access is permitted; in respect of zones susceptible to particular hazards, draw up and implement an operating plan and procedures to ensure a safe system of work and the protection of workers; take measures and precautions appropriate to the nature of a mine operation to prevent, detect and combat the start and spread of fires and explosions; and insure that when there is serious danger to the safety and health of workers, operations are stopped and workers are evacuated to a safe location
• prepare an emergency response plan, specific to each mine, for reasonably foreseeable industrial and natural disasters
• where workers are exposed to physical, chemical or biological hazards: inform the workers, in a comprehensible manner, of the hazards associated with their work, the health risks involved and relevant preventive and protective measures; take appropriate measures to eliminate or minimize the risks resulting from exposure to those hazards; where adequate protection against risk of accident or injury to health including exposure to adverse conditions cannot be ensured by other means, provide and maintain at no cost to the worker suitable protective equipment, clothing as necessary and other facilities defined by national laws or regulations; and provide workers who have suffered from an injury or illness at the workplace with first aid, appropriate transportation from the workplace and access to appropriate medical facilities
• ensure that adequate training and retraining programmes and comprehensible instructions are provided for workers, at no cost to them, on safety and health matters as well as on the work assigned;
• provide adequate supervision and control are provided on each shift to secure the safe operation of the mine;
• investigate all accidents and dangerous occurrences and appropriate remedial action is taken
• report to the competent authority on accidents and dangerous occurrences
• ensure the provision of regular health surveillance of workers exposed to occupational health hazards specific to mining
• implementation of all measures concerning the safety and health of their workers
Safety and Health in Agriculture Convention, 2001 • carry out appropriate risk assessments in relation to the safety and health of workers and, on the basis of these results, adopt preventive and protective measures to ensure that under all conditions of their intended use, all agricultural activities, workplaces, machinery, equipment, chemicals, tools and processes under the control of the employer are safe and comply with prescribed safety and health standards
• ensure that adequate and appropriate training and comprehensible instructions on safety and health and any necessary guidance or supervision are provided to workers in agriculture, including information on the hazards and risks associated with their work and the action to be taken for their protection, taking into account their level of education and differences in language
• take immediate steps to stop any operation where there is an imminent and serious danger to safety and health and to evacuate workers as appropriate
• specific articles are provided for: machinery safety and ergonomics; handling and transport of materials; management of chemicals

Is My Business Affected By These Agreements?

The ILO conventions are basic in nature.  Thus, if you are operating in a country with well-developed OHS laws and regulations (e.g., as per most countries in Northern Asian and the GCC), then the national OHS laws will likely surpass the ILO requirements.  

Further, the ILO requirements are consistent with general good worker health and safety practices; and these should already in place at your business. So, if that is the case, then there is no need to be overly concerned about the details of the agreements.

If interested, however, you are encouraged to download the actual ILO documents and review these in more detail.  

Below,  the key OHS-related agreements are summarized with respect to their applicability to types of industry.  Depending upon the exact nature of your operations you may or may not be affected by a particular agreement.

Table 2: Type of Business Potentially Affected by International OHS Agreements

Blog 4 Table 2

Within Asia, however, there is generally very limited ratification of these agreements; on average only 10% of Asian countries have ratified each of these agreements.  Rates of ratification are highest for counties in North-East Asia (on average 28%) and lowest for countries in SE Asia and South Asia (3-4%).

Table 3: Ratification of International OHS Agreements in Asia

Blog 4 Table 3

For further details of which countries have ratified these agreements, please download the following pdf file:

Table 4: Ratification of International OHS Agreements in Asia - by Country

Interestingly, and perhaps surprisingly, there is no correlation between the numbers of agreements ratified by a country versus worker safety performance in that country.   For instance, the highest rates of ratification were for Lebanon and Syria (both 50%) and both have relatively high fatality rates. In contrast, Singapore has not ratified any of these agreements and has among the lowest worker fatality rate in Asia. In a future blog post I will dissect this issue in more detail in a discussion of the effectiveness (or lack thereof) of OHS laws and regulations.

Take Home Messages

  • There are number of international OHS agreements that are potentially applicable to businesses operating in Asia.
  • These agreements may or may not be legally binding and may or may not directly affect your business.
  • If your business already has in place an effective worker safety and health management system, then you are almost certainly in compliance with these agreements.
  • If you do not have a worker safety and health management system – get one now!

Thanks for reading.  Keep safe.  Be healthy.  Respect your environment.


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Next Week’s Blog Topic: What Asian Businesses Need to Know About International Environmental Agreements

Photo Credits: Law books photo courtesy of Peter Skadberg at freerange.com

 

Randall D. Shaw, Ph.D.
Managing Director at Redlog Environmental Ltd.
Dr. Randall Shaw is Managing Director of Redlog Environmental Ltd. He has a wide-ranging background in health, safety and environment, with a focus on those HSE issues faced by industry in Asia. Dr. Shaw’s blog posts on HSE issues in Asia are based on his experience from working in more than 30 countries, his pragmatic approach to solving HSE problems, and his desire to pass on this knowledge to others. Ultimately, his goal is to help HSE professionals and companies active in the developing world tackle their HSE issues. You can find him on Twitter (@RedlogHSE) and LinkedIn and he is always keen to discuss HSE issues with others.
Posted in Asia, Environment, HSE, Laws and Regulations, Middle East, Occupational Health, Worker Safety.

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