Elke Sebold-Tanski knows all about the dangers to safety and health at work. As an engineer employed by Volkswagen in Wolfsburg, Germany, her job is to ensure that valid health and safety standards are adopted and complied with throughout the German car company's worldwide facilities and workforce of 320,000.

”We notice things which people on site have simply become used to,” she says.

But the car maker doesn't think its responsibility for occupational safety and health stops at its gates, and doesn't simply ignore the fate of those employed at thousands of suppliers and sub-suppliers around the world. One of the major problems faced by this and other multinational giants is that safety at work is a low priority in threshold countries in particular.

"Lack of resources and often simply ignorance frequently lead to problems at small to medium-sized enterprises," says Sebold-Tanski. "They need our support."

Having said that, even a global player like VW would be overwhelmed without the support of others. So it participates in an international project with the rather lengthy title of "Global Compact and Establishing a Health and Safety Culture" (within the overall "SafeWork" program), along with the International Labor Organization and the GTZ, Germany's technical cooperation agency.

The project's goal is to improve labor protection in Brazil, Mexico and South Africa – regions where VW already demonstrates a high commitment to occupational safety and health. Under the concept, the ILO drafts national action plans and trains labor inspectors, while the GTZ takes on the task of implementation monitoring. Volkswagen has selected 29 plants for the project – 13 in Mexico, eight in Brazil and eight in South Africa. Most of them are smaller suppliers with fewer than 50 people on staff.

Sebold-Tanski is off to South Africa. Her primary role when arriving at suppliers is to educate them. She distributes checklists and questionnaires advising the small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) of what they can expect.

"Our role is not that of policing but to work together to identify weaknesses and come up with solutions," she says.
She returns to the same plant a day later. At that time, she is joined by a team comprising another health and safety expert, a colleague from quality assurance, a national coordinator and two government labor inspectors with whom she goes through each of the plants in short order.

A whole month is spent checking, asking, assessing and advising. It takes two days for each plant. The follow-up talks are not only with the management but also with the unions and employees.

"They know their workplace best, and can help identify hazards which a manager would never notice," she says.

The suppliers themselves are very much aware that investments in safety at work are worthwhile for their own sake.

"The plants have to realize that safety at work complements productivity," she says.

‘Accidents do not go with the job’
For the German car manufacturer, safety and health begins at home. The first group health and safety conference was organized in 2000, attended by all European locations. More than 50 experts from management and works councils met in Wolfsburg to improve safety at work worldwide. The foundation stone was laid for closer cooperation between all occupational safety experts within the Volkswagen Group.

As a result of the efforts to strengthen this cooperation and to pursue the overall goal of creating safer and healthier workplaces the Volkswagen Group signed in 2004 a special agreement with the Group Global Works Council and the International Metalworkers' Federation. Volkswagen's purpose in providing this agreement is to document the fundamental principles and obligations for occupational safety for the countries and regions represented in Volkswagen's Group Global Works Council.

In fact, the number of work accidents at VW has fallen steadily and substantially over the last 25 years – in 2004, the rate was 5.2 accidents at work per million hours worked. Meanwhile, more than 100,000 staff members took part in the in-house occupational safety campaign entitled "Self-Assuredly Safe" which seeks to engender more self-responsibility for safety at work.

"Accidents do not go with the job. Experience shows that most accidents are preventable. Sound prevention, supported by appropriate reporting and inspection practices and guided by ILO conventions, recommendations and codes of practice on occupational safety and health, needs to be implemented systematically at the national and enterprise level", says Dr. Sameera Maziadi Al-Tuwaijri, director of the ILO's Safework program.

The ILO has developed such a systematic approach in a new convention adopted by the International Labor Conference in June 2006. The Promotional Framework for Occupational Safety and Health Convention, 2006 (No. 187) establishes a framework within which occupational safety and health can be promoted.

Its objective is to foster political commitments to develop, in a tripartite context, national strategies to promote continuous improvement of occupational safety and health to prevent occupational injuries, diseases and deaths; to take active steps toward achieving progressively a safe and healthy working environment; and to periodically consider what measures could be taken to ratify relevant occupational safety and health conventions of the ILO.

Together with the ILO Global Strategy on Occupational Safety and Health, adopted by the International Labor Conference in 2003, this new convention is a key tool in reducing work-related accidents and ill-health, and thus contributing to the realization of the ILO's Decent Work Agenda.

For more information, vist the Web page " Better Safety and Health for Suppliers".