One result of the COVID-19 pandemic has been to shine a light on the disparities in OSH behaviours between developed and developing countries. We asked Nnedinma Umeokafor which opportunities that might have been overlooked.
The COVID-19 pandemic will undoubtedly leave a significant legacy, not least in what may turn out to be a new age of health, safety and wellbeing (HSW) expectations. But for all the increasing convergence of legislation, working practices and official guidance, the pandemic has shown that there are still distinct differences in HSW across the world.
IOSH’s vision is a safe and healthy world of work. Members of all nationalities are increasingly engaging in branch activity, often outside their home countries. The issues raised in this article – flexibility, leadership and technology, among others – are common discussion points for all members, wherever they reside. In a world of mobile labour and increasing cultural diversity within borders, these issues have echoes in the developed world too.
Dr Nnedinma Umeokafor, a senior lecturer in construction law and course leader at Kingston University and secretary of IOSH’s London Metropolitan Construction Section, says a renewed focus on how developed and developing countries view HSW offers a unique opportunity for improvement even at a fundamental level.
‘For some developing countries – those that are striving to improve their standards – COVID-19 has moved the goalposts. For example, it has highlighted issues where women or disadvantaged people’s voices have previously been unheard. It has thrown a light on the fact that, in some countries, the vast majority of domestic work is still done by women, who also have to work. And it has led to both organisations and male populations taking steps to contribute more at home.’
Flexible working arrangements
One factor that may facilitate better sharing of family responsibilities, as well as providing other benefits, is flexible and remote working.
‘From an HSW perspective, there are both good and bad aspects to flexible working. If flexible work arrangements are done well to create a better work/life balance, that is a proven way to enhance people’s mental health and wellbeing,’ Nnedinma says.
‘Before COVID-19, some countries had legislation that supported flexible working. Even in countries that didn’t, they could copy the practices of other nations. In Nigeria, for example, employees of some sectors such as telecommunications claimed to have some sort of flexible working arrangements before the pandemic. The effects of COVID-19 have seen all that expand.
‘Generally, it’s not a perfect system on its own. You’ll find that those working from home tend to spend more time on their computers, and they tend to live with and think about their work more. People can feel removed from the organisation and no longer sense that they belong in the same way – there is an element of exclusion from the workplace and that can affect mental health. But the bigger problem is that some people are sceptical that these measures are truly effective and can be reluctant to adopt such arrangements.’
Under (soft) pressure
One possible strategy to help spread better HSW practices is the use of soft pressure from developed countries. Nnedinma cites the example of the banking sector, which demands certain operational standards to ensure that international electronic transactions are safe.
‘Banks in developed countries say to banks in developing countries that, in order for us to do business with you, there are steps that need to be taken. If that kind of philosophy could be brought into health and safety, then that would make a difference,’ Nnedinma says.
‘I know there is debate about the amount of funding that the UK gives developing countries. But if that aid came with certain conditions that set out health and wellbeing expectations to compel developing countries to raise their standards, then it would be effective. Similarly, multinational companies that work in these countries need to ensure their own health and safety standards are met, even if state enforcement in those nations is weak.
‘When enough sources of external incentives come together, I believe it can drive change. Globally, HSW professionals need to think of the things that we have done or could do differently to improve health and safety. There are so many opportunities to improve HSW at individual level, local level, national level and even global level. As HSW professionals, we need to exploit them.’
Changing working practices
Not all the changes to working practices as a result of COVID-19 restrictions are quite so obvious or widespread. Even when it comes to the risk-control hierarchy, the virus has brought about unexpected benefits and shown opportunities for designing out hazards.
‘One good example involves the placing of steelwork columns onto bolts for steel frames or overhead line masts,’ Nnedinma says.
‘We know that some workers had developed ad hoc behaviours and did not follow the prescribed steps set out by their managers. This presented the risk of a finger or hand being trapped during the process. But due to social distancing requirements during COVID-19, workers have had to use long metal rods to push the steel columns into place. This has had the side effect of removing the risk of injury to a hand or finger.’
These kind of incidental benefits aside, the potential to design out hazards is often overlooked in countries where legislation doesn’t demand it and enforcement is ineffective. Health and hygiene had been treated similarly, although this area has received far more attention in the wake of COVID-19.
‘Companies, especially in the construction industry, won’t have failed to notice that rates of sickness due to cold and flu have dropped significantly, so a continued focus on hygiene actually makes good business sense,’ Nnedinma says.
‘However, there are other challenges associated with health. In many countries, including those where poverty is high, there is the difficulty of tackling fake news and false public health information. For a number of reasons, people in these regions are more likely to distrust what the state or experts say – there is political distrust. That is something that we will need to understand if we are to maintain new standards after the virus.’
If the attention from government is there, I believe safety culture will improve
Leadership and authority
Nnedinma believes that one way that the developing world could look to circumvent any distrust among professionals – as well as improve compliance with HSW regulations, encourage voluntary best practices in terms of HSW, and increase the implementation of strategies for improving safety such as designing out hazards – is to incorporate professional organisations more fully in the development of regulations and guidance notes. Of course, this is already in place to some extent, but it can be increased and the methodology for this revised.
‘Regulatory and professional bodies, such as those for engineers, tend to have more effect than even some state bodies,’ Nnedinma says.
‘For example, organisations such as the Council for the Regulation of Engineering in Nigeria [COREN], which regulates the construction of buildings, tends to be very well respected by its members. I would say they achieve better compliance records, considering the powers available to them and other societal issues. However, this also brings its own complexities in terms of the political dynamics between different bodies.’
Such a move also points us towards the question of leadership: a subject where community, culture and religion plays a significant role in developing countries.
‘Religion is an integral part of many developing countries and can even be found underpinning actions or decisions taken in the workplace. In Ghana, Nigeria and many other countries in developing countries, for instance, prayers take place on-site or in offices,’ Nnedinma says.
‘In my own research, I have seen a relationship between religion indicators – such as observed belief in the supernatural – and health and safety indicators. So HSW teachings and Continuing Professional Development (CPD) could draw on relevant religious principles, such as morals, and embed them in the learning materials. The role of religious, cultural or community leaders and non-political authority figures to reinforce HSW issues could be utilised too’ (see box: A matter of faith).
‘Sadly, this approach is under-used. One reason may be the counterarguments that question its potential efficacy. Despite the religiousness of some of countries, the level of corruption in them – Nigeria, for example – is still very high. So religious teachings are not necessarily reflected in the activities or lives of the population.
‘Also, religious people often believe in the locus of control belonging to a higher being – “God’s will”. But the point isn’t that religion or community leadership is an HSW silver bullet, it’s the idea that these avenues offer further opportunities.’
SDGs and standards
The drive for better health and safety correlates particularly well with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). In fact, better HSW provisions directly contribute to SDGs 3 ‘Good health and wellbeing’, 4 ‘Quality education’; 5 ‘Gender equality’, 8 ‘Decent work and economic growth’, 9 ‘Industry innovation and infrastructure’, 10 ‘Reduced inequalities’, 16 ‘Peace, justice and strong institutions’, and 17 ‘Partnerships for the goal’.
Exploiting some of the opportunities we look at here also supports the adoption of ISO 45001. One feature of the international standard is that it involves significant worker consultation and participation. This is supported by the requirement of ISO 45001 that organisations identify external and internal contextual influences on health and safety management, such as culture.
Technology, education and data
The lack of data and technology is a barrier to HSW in the developing world, despite a significant amount of developing countries’ populations having access to mobile phones. The use of wearable technology, drones and automation is gradually rising too – although not at the kind of pace that is being achieved in developed countries, partly because labour is relatively cheaper than the technology that is involved. Associated limitations – for example, the recording, storage and use of data – are also hampering the full potential that technology offers.
‘Most developing countries still lack reliability of data, such as accident data, near-miss data, and ill-health data, mostly because of underreporting, weak or unenforced legislation, and poor or inadequate data capture,’ says Nnedinma. ‘The use of technology to collect data in electronic form is likely going to increase the accuracy, speed and sharing of the data. However, developing countries also need to develop effective data protection policies and behaviours.’
The final ingredient, possibly with the greatest potential for improvements in HSW, is education. To this end, developing countries are making strides, both in terms of sending their students to universities in more developed nations and offering improved health and safety education and awareness at home. However, Nnedinma says, the provision of education is not always reliable and sometimes fails to meet local needs.
‘Not only is health and safety awareness and education in developing countries far lower than in countries like the UK, it even differs from region to region. Some schools and educational institutions have included health and safety in their curriculum, but some do not,’ he says. ‘And in some cases, even where health and safety is included in the curriculum, the relevant skills and knowledge required for improving HSW are not adequately captured.
‘The quality of health and safety education in some disciplines, such as engineering, can also be poor. In the worst cases, health and safety is not even covered in the curriculum, such as on some construction courses. This means that young people – the leaders of tomorrow – are deprived of the grounding they need to be effective health and safety practitioners.’
Religion: A matter of faith
Nnedinma says the UK can learn from practices inspired by the religious cultures of developing countries.
‘Using institutions such as churches or mosques can be very effective for spreading a message and engaging communities who trust these institutions.’ he says.
‘In the UK we have seen a lot of people in black and minority communities choose not to have the COVID jab. I know people in Nigeria who had refused to have the vaccination, but when their church brought a professor in to speak about the subject, they changed their minds.
‘I doesn’t have to be lectures or talks. If places of worship were to give out leaflets or pamphlets – whether it’s about COVID-19, knife crime or even health and safety – that would work just as well.’
Looking for answers
Many of these factors were already well known before COVID-19. So why haven’t they been tackled before? Or, in certain cases, why has it taken a global pandemic to start exploring them?
‘There are many reasons,’ says Nnedinma. ‘When you look at the attitude of a government and the little attention it might pay to safety legislation, innovation, and health and safety, that’s a key explanation. For example, in the construction industry globally, governments are one of, if not, the biggest customers. In the UK, the government leverages this position to push strategies or polices or agendas, such as technology, innovation and building information modelling (BIM) compliance. But governments in developing countries may have priorities other than HSW and its legislation, resulting in a poor HSW regulatory system. The reason for that approach is largely ignorance and it can take decades for the safety culture in a country to catch up.’
Compounding matters that, if the safety culture isn’t mature enough, when innovative and improved ways of working are identified, they’re not incorporated into standard practice and people go back to their old ways.
‘All these factors are interconnected, so the first thing that needs to improve is awareness of health and safety issues,’ Nnedinma says.
‘In some countries, such as Nigeria, COVID-19 thankfully hasn’t caused the human disaster that we have seen elsewhere. But the knock-on effect is that there hasn’t been as much reason to look at new ways of HSW. However, if the attention from the government is there, and the ability to enforce regulations is there, then I believe the safety culture will improve and health safety and welfare will become an integral part of how everything is done.’
Dr Nnedinma Umeokafor is a chartered construction manager, a senior lecturer in construction law and course leader at Kingston University, London, UK and the secretary of IOSH’s London Metropolitan Construction Section. Occupational safety, health and wellbeing is one of his major areas of research; he has published academic articles in peer-reviewed journals and spoken at international conferences in this area.