Western Marine Shipyard (WMS) has successfully implemented globally accepted occupational health and safety practices, which have cut the number of workers' injuries by up to 99 percent.
The country's leading shipbuilder began implementing the five-year health and safety management system in 2009 with the help of GIZ, the German agency for international cooperation.
In 2009, the number of workers' injuries at the shipyard in Chittagong stood at about 1,000 a month; it came down to 10 in August 2013, said Saiful Islam, chairman of WMS.
Workers in the shipbuilding sector are prone to accidents, but with the project, we have been able to cut the number of accidents and have become more efficient and productive,” Islam said at a seminar on occupational health and safety, at Ruposhi Bangla Hotel in Dhaka yesterday.
WMS analysed the risks and hazards workers faced, after a welder was electrocuted while working without protective equipment.
To improve safety standards, the company tried hard and successfully motivated workers to wear helmets, boots, goggles, gloves, ear protectors and boiler suits. It put in place fans in enclosed spaces. It gave bonuses to workers to encourage them to use proper safety gear.
The company provides subsidised food to its workers. The food is cooked under its own management and tested by doctors.
WMS has improved the work environment in the shipyard to protect 3,500 workers against any hazard. It also recycles waste.
Its health clinic serves not only its workers and staff but also 30,000 people living in the village near the shipyard.
WMS adopted the OHSAS 18001 and ISO 14001 guidelines, which ensure that the shipbuilder complies with not only the Labour Act and Building Code, but also all other laws and rules to ensure a safe workplace.
OHSAS 18001 is the internationally recognised and accepted benchmarking standard for the development, implementation and maintenance of a world class health and safety management system.
WMS had to bear a cost of Tk 2.5 crore to implement the system, while GIZ extended technical assistance worth the same amount. It did not take long to see the returns on investment, as WMS received greater international recognition and export orders.
The shipbuilder recently received the two prestigious certifications—the OHSAS 18001 and ISO 14001—upon complete adoption of the system.
The system has helped WMS cut medical expenses; provided a happy, healthy and productive workforce; and reduced absenteeism, property damage, and work hours lost due to injuries.
The company has already built a large ferry for Denmark and currently building one for New Zealand.
The economic cooperation and development ministry of Germany has selected the occupational health and safety approach of WMS as a best practice in German Development Cooperation.
Hanne Fugl Eskjaer, Danish ambassador to Bangladesh, congratulated WMS for its achievement. "Western Marine is a good role model. I believe this success can be replicated in other sectors as well."
"Workers' safety is our top agenda in Bangladesh. So, this is good progress," she said.
Mujibul Haque Chunnu, state minister for labour and employment, thanked GIZ for helping to improve workplace safety.
He called for effective trade unions to build trust between factory owners and workers. "If we can do so, the occupational health and safety measures will fall in place automatically."
Mikail Shipar, labour secretary, said this approach can transform other sectors in the country as well. "I hope entrepreneurs will come forward and learn from the Western Marine and GIZ joint initiative on occupational health and safety."
At the event, speakers also called for adoption of sound occupational health and safety approaches in all the sectors to protect workers from preventable injuries.
Prof Hasnat Alamgir, an associate professor of University of Texas, said working conditions in the country should be seen as part of the general health care system.
"Bangladesh will not have to re-invent anything new. It will just have to adopt practices successfully being implemented in countries like Germany."
Almost all injuries in the workplaces are preventable, he said. "Still, we lead workers to suffer, knowing what works and what does not. These workers should not be injured in the first place."
Tobias Becker, country director of GIZ for Bangladesh, said embedding workplace health and safety as well as environmental management into the company's policy, processes and practices is a key success factor for a successful entrepreneur.
"The positive impact on workers' health and safety, the environment, as well as on the business will support the success and sustainability of businesses. This will be possible if the principles of systematic management approach are applied to health, safety and the environment, just as any other aspect of a business."
"The challenge now is on how to mainstream occupational health and safety in the industries of Bangladesh, allowing for more widespread adoption and certification."
Syed Monjurul Islam, shipping secretary, said Bangladesh's factories would have to adopt global occupational health and safety standards to raise workers' productivity.
Sakhawat Hossain, managing director of WMS, said the investment might seem expensive. "But the lack of standard occupational health and safety is more expensive in terms of workers' safety.”