Bangladesh, known for its frequent factory disasters, has also emerged as a model of workplace safety.
The Western Marine Shipyard Limited’s (WMShL) occupational health and safety approach has been recognised as the “best practice” by none other than the German government, a sticker for workplace safety standards.
Germany also happens to be one of Bangladesh's largest export markets.
The approach that cut workplace injuries by 99 percent in the Chittagong-based shipyard has been implemented with the help of the German development arm, GIZ.
State Minister for Labour and Employment Md Mojibul Haque Chunnu on Tuesday inaugurated a German publication containing the Shipyard’s success stories.
He appreciated them and said it showed “it's possible to ensure workers safety in workplaces”.
The measures were simple but tough to implement, the shipyard's Managing Director Shakhawat Hossain said.
Raising awareness of workplace safety, ensuring the use of personal protection equipment, and implementing the standard operating procedure, besides ensuring primary healthcare for the workers were the measures taken.
“The whole system was designed to identify health hazards, document them, and prevent them,” said Karsten van der Oord of the GIZ team that worked with Western Marine.
“You have to force workers through policies to use protective equipment,” he said.
The workers were offered incentives and sometimes given punishment in extreme cases to compel them to wear protective gear.
“It can be a small fine like Tk 20 or Tk 30, but once people start wearing them (the protective gear), they don’t want to go (to work) without them”.
The five-year project started in 2009 with € 500,000 as a public-private partnership. GIZ provided 50 percent of the sum.
After three years, the shipyard showed a dramatic drop in workplace injuries to 10 per month from over 1,000 earlier.
The company achieved the OHS 18001, ISO 14001 and ISO 9001 certifications, helping it to get international business.
The Western Marine MD said they bagged an order from the Danish Maritime Authority after injury rates dropped.
The company reaped resultant benefits such as a reduction in medical costs, property damage, loss of working hours, and an increase in workers' morale.
Danish ambassador in Dhaka Hanne Fugl Eskjaer said her country’s companies would do business with those companies that maintained the highest standards.
The shipyard workers mostly suffer hearing loss, eye injuries, burns and electric shocks, injuries caused by the lifting of heavy objects, and exposure to chemical and fumes.
Lal Mia, a worker, said frequent injuries once frightened them. “But now we feel safe,” he said.
Prof Abul Kalam Azad, additional director general of health services, said the public health system also benefits if injuries are reduced.
Since the Rana Plaza building collapse last year that killed more than 1100 workers and injured many, international buyers were increasingly demanding better health and safety in workplaces.
GIZ health sector’s principal advisor Paul Rueckert said other factories can learn from Western Marine’s experiences.
He said an Indian delegation would visit Western Marine to learn about the measures take.
“So it becomes a model,” he said, “We can learn from each other so that together we can change”.
Hasnat Alamgir, associate professor of the University of Texas, who works of occupational safety issues in US and Canada said protecting workers was “the right thing to do, legal thing to do, and a smart thing to do”.
He said factory design was key to ensuring workers' safety.
He cited global examples and said ensuring workers health safety would be profitable than compensating them for injuries and deaths.
But he said the “sad part” of the occupations health was that “owners know how to prevent, but they don’t care, letting them suffer and die”.
“Owners find it ‘disincentive’ to take care of workers in Bangladesh where unemployment rate is very high, because you can hire anyone if someone falls sick”.