Engaging Haitian Workers in their Own Safety

25 Feb 2014

25 February 2014.

Rolf Berthold, Entreprise Advisor, Better Work Haiti

Rolf Berthold, Entreprise Advisor

When your working environment is as challenging as trying to improve the garment industry is, it’s easy to focus on all of the remaining problems and forget to reflect on the little seeds of progress that are being sown.

I work as an Enterprise Advisor for Better Work Haiti. My job involves assessing factory conditions and working on improvements through coaching and training employers and workers and setting up systems to get both groups working together to resolve problems. When we first started operations in 2009, the words Occupational Safety and Health or OSH were hardly in the vocabulary here. Education on these issues among workers and factories was low– so in many cases we were starting from scratch and explaining the very basics of how to keep safe.

Workers know their own working conditions far better than anyone else– so my team and I knew from the earliest stages that if we wanted create lasting systems, worker involvement had to be paramount. We began working with factories to set up worker-management health and safety committees. The goal of the committees is to strengthen OSH in factories through assessing conditions, problem solving and training. In 2011, not a single factory had such a committee, today every factory involved with Better Work Haiti has one.

Today is World Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) Day. Better Work has held large scale fairs on this day with a variety of safety awareness activities for workers and management. With OSH Day and more, our team has put a lot of effort into trying to encourage workplace changes to make factories safer including trainings, materials, activities, coaching and trying to get these ever-important committees set up and working effectively.

Many factories in Haiti have experienced difficulties getting workers and management to trust one another so breaking down these barriers and achieving productive communication is often challenging. We think it takes about one year to get these committees working well and a commitment from management really allowing worker input is absolutely vital.

It’s taken three long years and lots of good work done by committed management, government, unions and buyers but those of us in factories every day are starting see some knock-on effects. We are seeing factories give the worker members of their OSH committees real responsibility such as having them make sure machine needle guards are being used every day. We are noticing that workers are now aware that you should not put boxes in front of fire extinguishers. We’ve also seen how workers have become better at responding to incidents, for example when a phone cable sparked a small factory fire not too long ago, workers instantly used a fire extinguisher to extinguish it and injuries were avoided. We are also seeing workers take greater responsibility for their own actions and cooperate better with policies on health and safety issues, for example there are less instances of factory soap being misused.

The committee system is working because workers are responding well to information being given to them by their fellow workers rather than by their bosses. Managers have said that increased communication with workers through the OSH committees is helping harmony and efficiency and makes their lives easier too.

Making factories safer and a better environment for workers is not easily done and is often costly. For example energy costs are high in Haiti and in our Caribbean summer, keeping a large factory cool is very expensive.

Haiti’s industry was hit hard by the recent global recession and the impact lasted for a few years. In 2011 and 2012 Tufts University who have been studying OSH in the garment sector found that factories couldn’t afford to or didn’t want to invest in health and safety. By 2013 however, some cracks of progress started breaking through and Tufts found that factories were for the first time investing in new equipment and systems to improve OSH in consultation with our programme. My colleagues and I have also noted that more compliance officer jobs are being created by factories indicating that employers are taking safety seriously by putting resources into it.

The data collected by our programme shows these changes too. Compared to 2010, workers are trained and encouraged to use personal protective equipment in 60% more factories, there are 65% more factories with proper policies on OSH and 40% more factories are leaving exits accessible.

There are many challenges ahead. OSH remains the highest non-compliant issue of all the working conditions we look at in Haiti. There is a great deal still to do including developing better systems recording accidents, increasing awareness of proper protective equipment, finding ways to address heat and noise levels in factories and more. Additional training is needed on an ongoing basis also because the turnover in management and workers happens so frequently in factories that we need to make sure new employees are informed early on.

My team and I are ambitious for the future. Where we want to go is to get to a stage where workers are so informed and empowered on safety issues that they call the shots and highlight problems as they happen. We want workers to be in a situation to tell mechanics- “Don’t take off that needle guard.” and tell their supervisor- “Look, that electric wire isn’t safe”. We’re not there yet but we’re getting there.

A version of this article appeared on the ILO Work in Progress blog.

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