Creating a safety culture in Latin America

Few minutes to read
By Clare Naden
Tagged as SafetyMedical
Published on

A prevalence of high-risk industries such as mining, exposure to powerful pesticides in agriculture and the exacerbation of risks due to climate change are just some of the factors that contribute to occupational health and safety hazards in Latin America. But a culturally rooted lack of awareness and engagement is perhaps the greatest danger of all. 

With some 130 million workers earning their livelihoods in conditions of informality and one in ten not having access to social protection1), it is little wonder that health and safety is not always top of mind for employees in the Latin America region. However, some organizations are taking the lead in challenging the mindset of many of their workers to bring their health and safety performance to the next level. Here, we talk to experts in Latin America about “where to from here” with ISO 45001, the new International Standard on occupational health and safety management systems.

“Occupational health and safety concerns all of us… It is about the lives and well-being of our colleagues,” says Sergio Henao Osorio, Organizational Change Manager at Ingenio Pichichí S.A., one of Colombia’s leading sugar cane manufacturers. “But the key issue in Colombia is that there is not a true health and safety culture in the workplace. That is one of our challenges, but it is also one of the pillars of our mission: to make it a key value for all our staff, and something we honour in all our activities.”

Ingenio Pichichí S.A., which has a staff of 792 plus 995 contractors, boasts an accident rate well below the 7 % average in Colombia and is one of the highest-performing organizations in the industry when it comes to safety. “Our aim is to achieve a zero-accident rate,” explains Sergio, “therefore, we are continually working on ways to encourage self-responsibility, the use of protective equipment, providing the best technologies and generally promoting an overall safety culture.”

The culture challenge

In Latin America and the Caribbean, about 30 000 fatalities occur each year and 22.6 million occupational accidents cause at least three days’ absence from work2). Work-related injuries and illnesses represent a significant health risk throughout the region, costing between 2 % and 4 % of the regional gross domestic product, not to mention the lives and well-being of its citizens3). But, as in Colombia, a general apathy towards health and safety is a challenge for many organizations in countries across the region.

Luisa Fernanda Pallares, a member of ISO project committee ISO/PC 283, Occupational health and safety management systems, and standardization professional at ICONTEC, ISO’s member for Colombia, says many people think that because nothing has happened to them before, nothing will happen to them in the future. “In some areas of life, this attitude can be useful, but it is not conducive to creating a safety awareness culture, and as such, people often feel they don’t want to invest the time and effort in becoming more aware or taking as many precautions as we would like.”

Ximena Baldeón, a standards specialist from INEN, ISO’s member for Ecuador, and a fellow member of ISO/PC 283, says her country faces similar frustrations. “Many employees feel that health and safety is about the management and not themselves,” she explains. “At the same time, many top managers aren’t aware of the cost-benefit ratio and are thus less engaged. This also leads to cultures where people are too afraid or not sufficiently engaged to report incidents or hazards.”

This lack of concern is also seen in some organizations in Panama, according to Anibal Ortega, standards specialist at COPANIT, ISO’s member for the country, and an expert of ISO/PC 283. “Some organizations lack the expertise and the budget to really invest in preventative measures, ” he deplores, “ and this is reflected in a sometimes insufficient level of concern.”

Brazilian women in a tailor workroom.

Funding education

Héctor Sáez, another committee member and standardization professional from INN, ISO’s Chilean member, says it is not just a question of culture, but also one of education. “The greatest challenge, I believe, for organizations in Chile is that it is often the uneducated workers who have the higher-risk jobs, and they, in turn, don’t have the knowledge and understanding to identify health and safety risks,” he says. “An organization can demonstrate its commitment to occupational health and safety by providing the right resources, such as equipment and clothing, but if the employees don’t use them appropriately, then it is a real challenge.”

In Colombia, Ingenio Pichichí S.A. has put in place an awareness-raising programme featuring activities such as plays, cartoons designed by employees’ children, practical workshops, technologies for monitoring risks and hazards as well as appropriate auditing, documentation of processes and monitoring and measurement of compliance. In addition, they are certified to SMETA (Sedex Members Ethical Trade Audit), one of the most widely used ethical audit formats in the world, which demonstrates ethical trade and decent work.

Ximena says many organizations in Ecuador do have good initiatives in place, which include training staff and establishing specific goals related to health and safety, in addition to fulfilling national and international regulations. “But many small and medium-sized businesses do not feel they have the budget to undertake extensive measures, and the amount of documentation can sometimes be a barrier.”

Anibal says some organizations in Panama are taking the time to hire staff dedicated to occupational health and safety (OH&S) planning and organize OH&S-related events, while in Colombia many organizations already use OHSAS 18001 – a long-standing and internationally recognized benchmark for health and safety management in the workplace – to meet national laws and international regulations, though the cost of certification can be prohibitive for many.

Going further with ISO 45001

“The budget issue will always be a concern,” agrees Luisa, “particularly for small and ­medium-sized organizations.” Fortunately, the newly published ISO 45001 can now help them take their initiatives even further, making it easier for other organizations with less engagement in health and safety to reduce risk at work and improve the lives of their employees.

For Ingenio Pichichí S.A., the goal is to be the first company certified to ISO 45001 in Colombia, if not the world. “It is for this reason that we have advanced a work plan for the implementation of an occupational health and safety system according to ISO 45001,” explains Sergio. “We believe ISO 45001 will facilitate the integration of an occupational health and safety management system with other ISO management systems such as ISO 9001 and ISO 14001, which in turn will facilitate the maintenance and improvement of all the systems.”

In addition, he says that ISO’s health and safety standard establishes requirements related to the management of hazards, risks and opportunities, which are key in order to be successful with any of their initiatives as they allow for continual improvement and appropriate prioritizing of resources.

In Panama, the standard will help businesses overcome some of the difficulties often seen in implementing an occupational health and safety programme, believes Anibal. “Its simple language and clean, systematic processes will not only make life easier for businesses, but help to smooth the processes of local regulation as well,” he says.

The fact that it represents international consensus and best practice is key, according to Héctor. “And after ISO 9001, OHSAS 18001 is the second most widely used management system in Chile, meaning that integrating ISO 45001 will be a lot easier.”

Workers printing textile in a factory.

Culture shock

It won’t be without its challenges, of course. Getting buy-in from senior management is the first essential step, though “engaging managers in occupational health and safety planning and defining goals wonʼt be easy,” Anibal predicts. Equally imperative is empowering the workforce in matters of health and safety, by raising awareness and giving them the right skills, which shows their well-being is taken seriously. “It is vital that employees understand the importance of health and safety and that it is for them, not for their management or to improve the bottom line,” says Ximena.

“At the same time, management needs to remember that while some measures may cost money, health and safety at work are an investment, not an expense. Not only will they benefit from a reduction in absenteeism, employees who feel safe and cared for in their work environment are likely to be more engaged and committed to their work – something money can’t buy.”

Luisa agrees that the return on investment is potentially high. “So having an engaged leadership, who can then engage employees is a key factor to success.” Of course, the Latin America region is not the only one to struggle with employee engagement. It is one of the catchwords of our time. But the seeds have been planted and success is indeed anticipated – after all, the lives and well-being of millions of workers depend on it.

1) 2013 Labour Overview. Latin America and the Caribbean, International Labour Organization (ILO).

2) Alli, B.O., Fundamental Principles of Occupational Health and Safety (second edition), ILO 2008.

3) Giuffrida, A. et al, Occupational risks in Latin America and the Caribbean : ­economic and health dimensions, Health Policy Plan 2002 Sep., 17(3):235-46.

Elizabeth Gasiorowski-Denis
Elizabeth Gasiorowski-Denis

+41 22 749 03 25
Press contact

Journalist, blogger or editor?

Want to get the inside scoop on standards, or find out more about what we do? Get in touch with our team or check out our media kit.