As the fifth most populous country in the world, Pakistan possesses a vast human resource that can play a crucial role in its economic growth. However, the country’s large labor force faces significant challenges, particularly in terms of occupational health and safety. Many workers are employed in ‘hazardous’ industries such as mining, construction, logistics, agriculture, and manufacturing, where both the potential risk and actual rate of accidents and injuries are alarmingly high. As many as 2.2 million people die every year from work-related accidents or illness, more than 270 million workers are injured and an estimated 160 million suffer work-related illness globally, according to reports of the International Labor Organization (ILO).
In Pakistan, the incidence of occupational accidents decreased from 4.3 percent of workers per year to 2.7 percent in 2021, on average every 37th worker experiences an occupational accident or injury each year, placing this South Asian country among the highest rates of workplace accidents and fatalities worldwide. According to the Labour Force Survey of Pakistan (2020-21), mainly the occupational injury sufferers belonged to agriculture (29.3%), construction (19.7%), manufacturing (19.1%), wholesale and retail trade (13.7%), and transport or storage and communication (10.2%). It is worth noting that a significant number of occupational health and safety incidents in Pakistan go unreported, making it difficult to determine the actual extent of incidents and casualties.
‘Our manufacturing industries are mainly led by entrepreneurs and investors who either lack an understanding of OHS risks in workplace or fail to prioritize measures that ensure safety and well-being of employees’
In Pakistan, the manufacturing industries are predominantly led by entrepreneurs and investors who either lack an understanding of Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) risks in the workplace or fail to prioritize the implementation of measures that ensure the safety and well-being of their employees. These owners are often willing to invest in insurance policies to protect their assets, but they fail to invest in preventive measures that can safeguard their most valuable asset – their people. Adding to the issue is the lack of the Occupational Health and Safety-related policies, procedures, and enforcement infrastructure by the government. The existing labor laws are outdated and inadequate, as they fail to address the broad range of health and safety risks posed by modern and complex manufacturing industries.
Furthermore, the current labor inspectors lack the qualifications to act as health and safety inspectors and lack the mandate to enforce world-class safety practices in the manufacturing sector. A stark example of the consequences of neglecting workplace safety occurred in 2012 when a massive fire engulfed a factory in Baldia area of Karachi, claiming the lives of more than 250 workers. Shockingly, even an incident of such magnitude failed to trigger the much-needed reforms by the government. Presently, there is no single federal body with the authority to draft and implement OHS policies, rules, and regulations. Aftermath the Baldia incident, the provinces of Sindh, Punjab, and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa have enacted legislation on occupational safety and health but are still far from creating necessary infrastructure and support for effective implementation.
‘Pakistan must establish an occupational health and safety governing body under Labor Department to address much-needed reforms in health and safety management’
Instead of reinventing the wheel, Pakistan can look to developed nations such as the United States of America for best practices. In 1970, the United States established the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA), creating an agency within the Department of Labor responsible for private-sector employers. The act has the necessary infrastructure and resources to ensure its successful operation. Over the years, this act has formulated nearly 1,000 standards covering a wide range of industries, their associated risks, and preventive and protective measures. To address the much-needed reforms in occupational health and safety management, the Pakistan government must establish a national occupational health and safety governing body similar to OSHA under the Department of Labor.
This national body should enact a national occupational health and safety act. The provincial legislations must be aligned with the national act. The national OSH governing body should be provided with the necessary resources and infrastructure to guarantee its success. The OSH governing body would focus on creating both horizontal and vertical standards related to occupational health and safety. Horizontal standards would apply to all industries and employers, covering aspects such as emergency preparedness and response. Vertical standards would be specific to certain industries and employers, addressing their unique risks and requirements, such as standards for the construction industry.
To ensure the effective development of OSH policies and procedures, a team of competent health and safety experts should be appointed in collaboration with local industries, foreign OSHA agencies, and International Labor Organization experts. Additionally, a skilled and empowered team of health and safety inspectors should be deployed with the mandate to conduct inspections and issue citations for violations. In Pakistan, improving occupational health and safety requires a collaborative effort from the government, employers, employees, and other stakeholders. By prioritizing the safety and well-being of employed people, Pakistan can create a more productive and prosperous workforce that contributes to the country’s economic growth and development while upholding its core founding values and principles.