Turkey's challenge of occupational safety

Published 25.10.2017 02:05
Updated 25.10.2017 10:49
A restoration worker walks on the roof of the Grand Bazaar, Istanbul, Oct. 20.
A restoration worker walks on the roof of the Grand Bazaar, Istanbul, Oct. 20.

Turkey was once highly criticized for its inability to provide sufficient occupational safety, but since 2012, with the AK Party implementing new standards, the country has gained much ground, but there is still a lot to do

Turkey, as an emerging economy and a long-term member of the G-20, has a lot of problems with occupational health and safety that still is yet to be solved. Statistics show that in terms of work accidents, the country is unfortunately the worst among Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) members. Each year, 2,000 people die and almost the same amount become permanently disabled in the country based on job accidents. Approximately 2 million workdays are lost due to accidents annually.

Portraying Turkey in occupational safety among the worst not only in OECD members but also worldwide with countries like Bangladesh, China or Mexico, yet is a statistical failure. According to the International Labor Organization (ILO), 146,000 employee die each year in China in work accidents. This terrible situation is the same in India, Bangladesh, Russia and Mexico. But, as official statistics are extremely poor, the official number of work accidents, especially fatal ones, does not resemble the real figures in these countries.

Slight improvement up to 2012

To be fair, throughout its history, Turkey has never been among the golden league when it comes to occupational and industrial safety. And there has been another very dramatic trend occurring in the country for the last five years. Until 2012, the country had around 60,000 to 70,000 work accidents every year. The country's development model, which has been based on labor-intensive sectors since the 1980s, combined with the lack of sufficient public supervision in workplaces and a lack of a culture of safety in society, has triggered this severe picture.

Still, the country was showing slight improvements up to 2012. The fatal work accidents rate compared to total employment was in steady decline since the 1980s. The incidences and lost workdays from work accidents were also steadily declining. According to the official statistics of the Social Security Institution (SGK), the incident rate of work injuries, which represents the number of injuries per one million working hours, have fallen from 5.56 in 2002 to 2.43 in 2012. Accordingly, rate of lost workdays from work injuries in the country per 100 working hours, had fallen from 0.82 in 2002 to 0.32 in 2012.

By 2012, statistics showed that per each 100 employees, 0.1 experienced work injuries annually. This was considered an important achievement when compared the rate of 1.25 employees in 2002 and 11 employees in 1971.

The critical juncture

This trend, however, has changed dramatically after 2012. In 2012, the country changed its statistics collecting methods to the European Statistics on Accidents at Work (ESAW) methodology, which is the EU standard. This change has shown that previous statistics were severely faulty. While previously, only inspected work accidents (on a payment basis) were entering the official data, with the new method, all complaints made within five days after accidents began to be recorded as work accidents. With the implementation of the new standards, the annual number of work accidents instantly jumped from 75,000 in 2012 to 191,000 in 2013.

Another significant step this year was that the country enacted a world-class occupational health and safety law to be gradually implemented at all workplaces. Act No. 6331 and its new industrial safety regime, which brought great hope, unfortunately and quite interestingly, worked exactly the opposite as it was intended. The annual number of work accidents kept on climbing in 2014 and 2015, to 221,000 and 240,000 respectively. Although the official statistics are yet to be released, unofficial estimates show that the annual number is on the way to 300,000 annually in 2016 and 2017.

What diverse effects have triggered this trend from 2012 onward? How did the implementation of a major policy reform effect the situation in the exact opposite way? This is a quite interesting mystery yet to be solved with empirical research.

The economic cost is $4 billion per year

The ILO estimates that work-related accidents and illnesses result in the loss of 3.94 percent of global gross domestic product (GDP per year), or $2.99 trillion. In other words, work accidents severely and constantly damage the global economy more than any financial crisis ever.

In this regard, the severe problem of occupational safety in Turkey does not only result in human costs, the lack of safety in workplaces also results in direct (visible) and indirect (invisible) costs to the economy both in the micro and micro levels. Work hours are lost due to accidents, payments made from the SGK budget as temporary and permanent incapacity benefits and other payables, and healthcare expenses are some of these direct costs mentioned in the literature. There are also indirect costs such as value-added losses in the economy, losses in career plans of those who had the accident and expenses for recovering accident areas. According to industrial safety pioneer H.W. Heinrich, the indirect costs of work accidents are four-times bigger than the direct costs.

Assistant professor Kemalettin Aydın gives us an opinion about the economic damage of work accidents to the Turkish economy in his paper presented at the National Employee Health and Safety Congress, in Trabzon, on March 2017. According to him, the direct costs of work accidents to the Turkish economy are TL 6.65 billion ($1.79 billion) annually as of 2015. When assessed with the indirect costs, he concludes that the Turkish economy loses at least TL 13.3 billion each year as a result of the lack of industrial safety in workplaces in the country. It has to be stressed that this is a moderate estimate. Nonetheless, the figures show that this is an unbearable and unsustainable situation for any country that has ambitious economic development goals.

Immediate policy intervention is required

Facing the situation is not a bad thing, per se. To heal, one must first understand the seriousness of the situation. This will only be good if the next step is taken to get the proper treatment. It is time bear the responsibility for all sides to cure the occupational safety problem in Turkey. The depth of the problem is so serious that it requires a complex, multi-leveled policy intervention.

The Justice and Development Party (AK Party) governments have solved several of the country's social policy problems in the last 16 years, but the problem of occupational safety is not yet one of them. The Labor and Social Security Ministry has a great responsibility to take steps for this. Without quick blame on politicians for the sake of short-term political disputes, work accidents must be analyzed technically, politically, economically, culturally and socially. What Turkey should do is gather all sides – employers, employees, unions, politicians, and nongovernmental organizations – to find an applicable and sustainable solution to this tragic problem. This problem does not only cost lives, it also harms the sustainable development goals of the country. What Turkey needs is to analyze the roots of this colossal problem and come up with actual solutions.

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