International Labor Organization – What Really Matters in Occupational Safety

Created in 1919, the International Labour Organization (ILO) is now part of the United Nations.  The ILO, with its motto, “Promoting Jobs, Protecting People,” exists as a forum for governments, employers, and workers, to shape policies and programs to advance safe, dignified work.

The ILO has been involved in many aspects of protecting workers against the dust diseases of the lungs.  Every United States lawyer who litigates pneumoconiosis claims is, of necessity, familiar with the ILO’s system for standardizing the classification and interpretation of plain film chest radiographs for the pneumoconioses.  Last year, in conjunction with the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), the ILO reissued its long-awaited guidelines for digital radiographs.  Guidelines for the use of the ILO International Classification of Radiographs of Pneumoconioses, revised edition 2011 (Nov. 17, 2011).

The ILO system for classifying chest radiographs is used around the world for health surveillance, epidemiologic studies, and in some places, for assessing extent of pneumoconiotic disease and compensation for silicosis, asbestos-related diseases and coal workers’ pneumoconiosis. See ILO fact sheet about the 2011 edition of the classification system.

The ILO standard radiographic images are now available in DICOM Format on DVD from the ILO.  In January 2012, NIOSH published a “Notice of Proposed Rulemaking – Amendments to Specifications for Medical Examinations of Underground Coal Miners” to modify regulations of the Coal Worker’s Health Surveillance Program (CWHSP), to retain the use of plain film, while permitting the use of digital radiography for the assessment of coal worker’s pneumoconiosis.

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The ILO has done important work in other areas as well.  If you are looking for a single publication that captures the key principles of providing a safe workplace, you would be hard pressed to find a better source than the ILO’s text on occupational safety and health. Benjamin Alli, Fundamental principles of occupational health and safety (2d ed. 2008).    The first edition, from 2001, is available for free from the ILO’s website. Benjamin Alli, Fundamental principles of occupational health and safety (1st ed. 2001).

The ILO describes the text as

“useful for legislators and labour inspectors, those involved in policy-making (governments, and employers’ and workers’ organizations) and those within enterprises who are concerned with the practical implementation of measures to promote and protect the safety and health of workers (managers, supervisors, workers’ representatives), as well as academic institutions.”

What is remarkable about the ILO text is the even-handedness in which it describes the respective responsibilities of the employers and workers for the promotion and preservation of workers’ health.  The duties of employers are described as including the duty to:

  • “inform  the  workers  of  all  the known hazards associated with their work, the health risks involved and the relevant preventive and protective measures;
  • take appropriate  measures  to eliminate or minimize the risks resulting from exposure to those hazards;
  • provide  workers  with  suitable protective equipment, clothing and  other  facilities  where  adequate protection against risk of accident or injury to health, including  exposure  to  adverse conditions, cannot be ensured by other means… .”

Id. at page 95.   In practical terms, the ILO specifies the “work practices and organizational methods” to reduce or eliminate safety and health hazards.  Personal protective equipment, such as respirators, is a last resort:

“When none of the above approaches is feasible, or when the degree of safety achieved is considered inadequate, the only solution is to provide exposed persons with suitable personal protective equipment and protective clothing. This is the final line of defence and should be used only as a last resort, since it entails reliance on active cooperation and compliance by the workers. Moreover, such equipment may be heavy, cumbersome and uncomfortable, and may restrict movement.

Employers should consult workers or their representatives on suitable personal protective equipment and clothing, having regard to the type of work and risks. Furthermore, when hazards cannot be otherwise prevented or controlled,  employers should provide and maintain such equipment and clothing as are reasonably necessary, without cost to the workers. The employer should provide the workers with the appropriate means to enable them to use the individual protective equipment. Indeed, the employer has a duty to ensure its proper use. Protective equipment and clothing should comply with the standards set by the competent authority and take ergonomic principles into account. Workers have the obligation to make proper use of and take good care of the personal protective equipment and protective clothing provided for their use.”

Id. at 97.

Remarkably, what is absent from the ILO text is any rhetoric or rationale in support of warnings on products from remote vendors.  Judges and legislators might well take note that the dissemination of information about hazards in a workplace is so dependent upon employers in the first instance, and workers in the next, that it will be a rare case when a supplier of a raw material or commodity will actually have the opportunity to play a substantial role in causing a chronic over-exposure occupational disease.  The focus of the American law on warnings from a remote supplier is an anomaly created by the legislative immunity accorded employers in the tort system.

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