Societies have developed over time along with technological advancements. People who made a living by hunting in the past turned toward agriculture over time and later toward mechanization with the invention of the engine, finally reaching today’s level of knowledge and intelligence.
We have also developed rules to prevent possible damage. Sometimes we have developed rules based on our predictions of harm and risk, and sometimes we have developed them to prevent harm we have suffered from reoccuring after seeing the damage caused.
The introduction of traffic laws into our lives as a result of the increase in the number of vehicular accidents or safety measures incorporated within vehicles are examples in this regard. Indeed, all this is the key to a safer, healthier and more comfortable life.
One of the areas where progress has been made in this regard is occupational health and safety. Working hours, the working environment of employees and equipment to be used in many areas, particularly in the mining industry, were determined. This was inevitable given the introduction of machines into our lives, the increased production and greater demand for a higher standard of living as a result of the Industrial Revolution in the second half of the 18th century.
Invention of engine
In this period, the machines introduced into the business world gave rise to some difficulties in working life.
Before this period, agriculture was the main source of livelihood. People would generally harvest, sell and make a living on an individual basis. However, the introduction of machines into our lives led to the development of new branches of business and increases in production, in the number of employees and in working time – which gave rise to certain risks.
The people who had been living in rural areas initiated large waves of migration to the cities where the factories were equipped with machines in the hope of finding a job, earning more and leading a more comfortable life. This rush to urban areas inevitably resulted in living in unhealthy conditions. Apart from the shortage of essential supplies, the race for employment whetted the appetite of employers. Indeed, the priority issue for factories was low-cost production. At this point, a large number of employees, including children, ages 4-6, were forced to work in very poor conditions day and night for long hours, without protective equipment or safety rules, regardless of the dangers.
Moreover, the high number of job seekers enabled factories to maintain poor working conditions. The increase in the number of child workers and the length of working hours invited danger.
In those times when the value of human life was ignored, especially those who worked in dangerous jobs were stricken with fatal ailments and diseases at young ages. Most people working in glass factories suffered from blindness and deafness, and young girls working in match production suffered an unhealable bone disorder in their jaws, which was identified “bisphosphonate necrosis” only in 2003, as a result of their exposure to phosphorus fumes for extended amounts of time. All of this required some measures to be taken.
With the spread of child labor, in particular, society began to react negatively and call for reform, paving the way for the introduction of the first regulations in this area.
When we consider it historically, we see that written rules originated in Britain, the cradle of industry. The "Factory Act" was first enacted in the early 1800s. This was a law that bound every factory with more than 20 employees and every textile workshop with two or three apprentices.
The law basically included the provision of adequate ventilation facilities in working areas, the provision of suitable and clean clothing and a rest area for employees, and some restrictions on working hours, setting them at a maximum of 12 hours, excluding daily break times.
Thirty years later, the act was revised, paving the way for the inspection of workplaces in 1833. At first, there were only four inspectors. The number of facilities they were responsible for was around 3,000. Inspectors had the right to enter factories and ask employees questions. Although criticized by opponents, this method was embraced over time.
In 1835, a claim for compensation filed against the employer by an employee injured in a work accident was the basis for regulations entitling injured workers to compensation in cases where they were not found to be at fault.
The first step in the U.S. was the founding of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers in 1880. The impetus for the founding of this first institution, which determined standardizations in the industry, were explosions of pressure systems on land and sea, which caused 50,000 deaths annually.
In the early 1900s, a 16-year-old boy working in a factory in the U.S. was caught in a machine and lost his arm and leg. The factory did not pay any compensation, stirring a strong reaction among the employees. This was a turning point for this issue.
In Europe, on the other hand, the legal regulation on social security was introduced in Germany in 1883-1884.
Road to Int'l Labor Organization
These processes within individual countries necessitated the formation of a union on a global level and, based on this idea, the International Labor Organization (ILO) was established under the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 after World War I.
The ILO, which operated under the umbrella of the United Nations, in the years following the end of World War II, currently has 185 members. Its main purpose was defined as engaging in activities to improve the living and working conditions of employees.
Today, despite the development of legislation to such an extent and the fact that occupational health and safety are highlighted so much, millions of occupational accidents still occur due to negligence, especially amid poor working conditions.
According to ILO data, more than 300 million occupational accidents occur annually. As a result of these accidents, more than 2.3 million people, including children and women, die each year. This figure also shows an average of around 6,300 casualties worldwide each day. This also means that 260 people die every hour and four to five people die every minute.
Case in Turkey
The first regulations for employees to work in healthy conditions in Turkey were implemented in 1865. This regulation regarding mining activities in the northern province of Zonguldak is known as the Dilaver Pasha Regulation.
Subsequently, the Maadin Regulation was developed in 1869, binding all the mines. The main purpose of the regulation was to improve the working conditions of employees, rearrange working times and ensure a healthier environment.
With the industrialization in the Republic Period and the following years, these regulations were improved and became laws. The Labor Law was prepared in the 1930s, covering mainly occupational health and safety issues.
Likewise, in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, when industrialization was on the rise, the law was improved and provisions in the relevant fields were enriched.
Occupational health and safety continued to have their share of developments in almost all areas, such as breakthroughs in the period that began after the great economic crisis of 2001 and the rapid development of technology and the gradual increase of industrial branches in the 2000s.
In particular, the regulations made in line with the European Union harmonization target are evident in laws, statutory rules and orders that are suitable for the current conditions.
The biggest step to improve the working environment, fundamental rights and freedoms of employees, reduce working hours to a reasonable level and provide a safer environment was taken in 2012.
During this time period, 11 people died in a fire that broke out in a tent where workers were staying during the construction of a shopping mall in Esenyurt, Istanbul. This was the final straw and a turning point, just like the earthquake-resistant housing construction process launched after the devastating Marmara earthquake in 1999 and the urban transformation mobilization initiated after the Van earthquake in 2011 at the cost of losing power.
It was the same here. This sad incident resulted in a good deed. While provisions on job security generally formed a small part of the Labor Code, they were instrumental in the preparation of a fully independent law in 2012. The Labor Health and Safety Law No. 6331 was introduced to the country. New and comprehensive security rules were set following the deaths of people.
However, improving legislation alone is not enough. The obligations brought by the legislation on European Union standards must be fulfilled by authorities, and the practices in this area must be audited on-site from time to time.
In our country, approximately 200,000-300,000 occupational accidents occur annually. Unfortunately, we lose around 1,500 people in these accidents. In addition, there is an economic loss of TL 30 billion to TL 40 billion ($4 billion to $5 billion) on an annual basis due to expenses such as loss of working days, insurance and compensation.
According to Eurostat data, 3,500 lives were lost in 3.3 million occupational accidents in the EU in 2017. While approximately 878,000 of the work accidents occurred in Germany, the death toll in the country was only 430.
According to Turkey’s Social Security Institution (SGK) data, there has been an increase in occupational accidents and casualties, especially since 2013, when the Occupational Health and Safety Law No. 6331 entered into force. In other words, while 1,300 lives were lost in 190,000 work incidents in 2013, the death toll rose to 1,540 in over 400,000 accidents in 2018. That means four to five people die almost every day. It is also sad that most of these deaths result from construction accidents, which can be prevented by simple measures, such as the use of safety belts or helmets.
Although the number of work accidents in our country is half of those in Germany, we experience 3.5 times more casualties. Unfortunately, Turkey ranks high in Europe in terms of mortality.
Time for accounting
Our statesmen go to the disaster area immediately after all the incidents, carry out the necessary investigations there and promise that the wounds will be healed and those responsible will be called to account. It is not very difficult to heal the wounds after a disaster, but when it comes to bringing those responsible to account, this does not seem possible under current conditions.
There are several parameters that need to be considered when analyzing such disasters. Have the necessary measures been taken to prevent the possibility of such a disaster? Have the precautions during and after the disaster been taken? Have businesses fulfilled their obligations in these three stages? Have the control mechanisms of the state fulfilled the task of inspection properly?
It is easy to bring up dissenting arguments and blame the government after every disaster. Opposition parties, as well as others, know that no matter how strictly you inspect a business in Turkey under the current circumstances, the business owner finds a way to maintain old procedures and compromise work safety and workers’ safety in order to reduce costs after the inspection. So, despite these shortcomings in measures, workers are unable to respond as they avoid losing their bread and butter.
After each accident, action is taken against the people responsible for the accident, but when it is brought to the court, the procedure is overwhelmed by red tape. We do not see any clear actions after the disaster although it is possible in the current circumstances, and the investigation and judicial process hang in limbo. As time passes, the disaster is forgotten, and those responsible are forgotten too.
The rulers of this country, opposition parties that aim to rule this country and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) have to come together and find a common solution to such problems.
We all have a responsibility. The legislators have made the legal arrangements so that we have legislation based on EU standards. However, our mortality rates are well above those of the EU. So, the law alone is not enough. We need to abide by them.
We have traffic rules to prevent accidents involving vehicles. We have speed limits. There are red lights. All this is for our safety. It is not enough. We have rules to follow inside the vehicle, like wearing a seat belt and avoiding distractions like mobile phone use while driving and observing the periodic maintenance of vehicles.
There are dozens of rules that we have to follow in dozens of steps even for a vehicle. If we neglect one of these, we may have to pay a very heavy price. For instance, let us suppose that the tires of our vehicle are worn, and we replace them with tires we have borrowed to pass the inspection, and remove them after the inspection – this does not bring us any benefit. On the contrary, if we continue with our worn tires, we will harm ourselves.
This is true for workplaces as well. The legislators have set the boundaries and rules and also carry out inspections. However, if we offer a perfunctory order and do not pay attention to the rules, we have to pay a very heavy price.
Let us all of us fulfill our responsibility. Let us not run the red light just because there are no police, and let us not exceed the speed limits because there is no radar. Let us not neglect the safety rules in our workplaces because there is no constant inspection and control. Let us not forget that everyone's police is their own conscience.
Again, as Article 56 of the Turkish Constitution stipulates: "Everyone has the right to live in a healthy, balanced environment. It is the duty of the state and citizens to improve the natural environment, and to prevent environmental pollution.” We should adopt this as a motto. Let us not expect everything from the state. Let us not take the easy way out.
I would like to reiterate over and over again that we blame the state and the government after every accident in our country, and we see those who rule the country as the sole responsible parties. This is not a realistic approach. On the contrary, it is an abusive and easygoing one. For some, hostility to the government has reached such a point that they rub their hands in glee, waiting unscrupulously and irresponsibly for a disaster to kill dozens of people, hoping that this might lead to the toppling of the government.
While you prepare newspaper headlines while sipping your coffee in giant plazas, thinking to attack the government through miners and garner support in this way, an ember burns where it falls and miners and their families turn out to be the worst sufferers. Let us not forget our own responsibilities. Otherwise, we will continue to pay a high price and lament.
* Deputy minister at the Republic of Turkey's Ministry of Environment and Urbanization, chief climate change envoy
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