Helping Workers Protect Themselves

Garrett Brown on Improving Factory Worker Health and Safety Outside the Developed World

By Kay Bechtold

Salt Palace Convention Center, Salt Lake City (June 1, 2015)—On Monday afternoon, Garrett D. Brown, MPH, CIH, delivered the Jeffrey S. Lee Lecture to a standing-room-only crowd, discussing how the off-shoring of the manufacture of consumer goods over the past two decades has resulted in the transfer of occupational health and safety hazards to developing countries that are underprepared to address them. Brown outlined the problems that global supply chains create for workers—including very long hours, unsafe and unhealthy conditions, and physical abuse and sexual harassment—and explained why little progress has been made to improve working conditions in these factories over the past 20 years, since the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement helped spur the U.S. economy’s increased reliance on global supply chains.

“The sweatshop business model; ineffective, corrupt monitoring; and lack of any meaningful worker participation in developing, implementing, and maintaining [occupational health and safety programs]” are the key reasons for such slow progress in increasing protections for workers employed by these foreign-owned factories, Brown said.

Brown highlighted the “relentless drive” of corporations to cut per-unit price as a contributing factor to poor working conditions in the factories.

“Suppliers are constantly being squeezed,” he said, adding that last-minute design and order changes, the use of short-term contracts, and the lack of financial support for occupational health and safety programs exacerbate the issue.

“Sustainable improvements are impossible without resolving the big-picture issues,” Brown said. “And having ever more elaborate occupational health and safety management systems will not address underlying problems.”

Brown, an AIHA Fellow, has been actively involved in the Maquiladora Health and Safety Support Network (MHSSN) since its establishment in 1993. MHSSN is a volunteer network of 400 occupational health and safety professionals—many of them IHs—working to create safer and healthier working conditions for workers in foreign-owned factories in Mexico, Central America, Indonesia, China, and Bangladesh. During his talk, he described MHSSN’s efforts in all of these areas, including connecting with local organizations to build occupational health and safety capacity with the goal of enabling workers to participate in key OHS roles such as identifying hazards, investigating incidents, and evaluating and verifying hazard abatement.

“[MHSSN] trainings are participatory and interactive,” Brown said, explaining the Network’s use of hazard maps to help employees identify hazards in a factory through drawing. Another frequently used training tool is the “tox t-shirt,” a shirt depicting human organs to help workers understand how chemicals affect their bodies and routes of exposure.

The provision of native-language materials and hands-on activities also helps to build workers’ skills and self-confidence, Brown said.

Brown stressed that workers can play essential roles in improving health and safety in these factories now and in the future, if they are provided training, authority, and time. There is a need for a new business model for global supply chains, for governments with the political will and resources to act effectively, and for auditing that is transparent, Brown said, but “[workers should be] front and center and an integral part of these health and safety programs.”

Jeffrey S. Lee was a Salt Lake City native, and his wife, Mary Ann, and two sons, Chris and Alex, were in the audience along with many of his colleagues and friends.

Kay Bechtold is assistant editor of The Synergist. She can be reached at (703) 846-0737.

View more Synergist coverage of the conference on the AIHce 2015 Highlights page.