In a global society, growing attention is now being focused on the health and safety standards of suppliers, with supply chains in the spotlight as never before. Vicky Powell examines health and safety management within supply chains as an emerging role for health and safety professionals.

It has been said that the world is shrinking, as the rapid development of information, communication and other technologies continues. Traditionally, organisations have been responsible for the health and safety standards affecting their own workforce and that of members of the public who might be affected by the organisation’s work activities. However, a number of high profile health and safety failures have contributed to growing pressure for a broader approach to health and safety management, as British and other international companies conduct greater volumes of business on an international basis.

In April 2013, the deaths of over 1100 workers in the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh highlighted the dangerous conditions faced by the workers in that country. The collapse of the eight storey commercial building caused reverberations around the world, as it emerged that the factories within the building were manufacturing clothes for brands including Benetton, Bonmarché, the Children's Place, El Corte Inglés, Joe Fresh, Monsoon Accessorize, Mango, Matalan, Primark and Walmart.

Campaigners said that the incident was by no means an isolated one and that poor safety standards are widespread in Bangladesh. Five months before the April 2013 collapse, 114 people died in the Tazreen factory fire in the country. Again, the Tazreen factory had been making clothes sold by global retailers such as Walmart, Sears and C&A among others.

Not just the rag trade

It is not only the fashion industry which can be affected by human rights and health and safety crises around the world. The spotlight fell on British supermarkets after it emerged that slave labour under threat of extreme violence was being used in the production of prawns on fishing boats off Thailand, which were then found to be selling in leading supermarkets around the world, including Carrefour, Costco and Tesco.

International sport has come under scrutiny too, with attention being focused on health and safety standards in Qatar, as preparations for the 2022 Football World Cup get under way, highlighting the vastly different regulatory regimes and conditions in various countries around the world.

When the World Cup was hosted by Brazil in 2014, a total of nine workers died in the building works to finish the arenas. Ahead of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, two workers died on stadium construction projects. In contrast, the London Olympic Park was completed without a single death. However, the Brazil and South African cases pale in comparison to the safety record in Qatar.

It has been estimated that 1200 migrants have already died since the nation was awarded the 2022 World Cup bid and projections suggest that, in the absence of action, the death toll for migrant workers could reach as high as 4000 by the end of the project.

Health as well as safety

It is not only about safety however. Worker health is also an issue and the British Occupational Hygiene Society (BOHS) believes there is far less awareness about worker health than safety in supply chain management.

Mike Slater, President of BOHS, said, “Events such as the Rana Plaza disaster and the terrible Tazreen factory fire have received widespread attention in newspapers around the world, and rightly so. However, the deadly diseases threatening the lives of millions of workers across the continents are less well known.”

The Society has pointed out that, for example, millions of workers around the world continue to be at risk of lung disease due to widespread exposures to silica, coal, asbestos and various mineral dusts in mining, quarrying, construction and other manufacturing processes. How many of these processes have links to international supply chains is unknown, but should concern British health and safety professionals.

Changes under way

Following the Rana Plaza collapse, over 30 major British retailers, including H&M, John Lewis, Marks and Spencer, Next, Primark and Tesco signed up to a new safety accord on fire and building safety in Bangladesh. In addition, financial compensation packages were agreed by individual retailers. For example, the holding company of the British retailer Primark agreed to pay out to $12 million in compensation to victims of the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh. A year after the building collapse, the Fashion Revolution campaign was launched as an ethical lobby to target fashion retailers and their supply chains.

A source at the Institution for Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH) says the Rana Plaza tragedy has become the catalyst for “a soul-searching examination into the potentially high human cost of manufacturing of High Street products”.

In a statement to mark the launch of the Fashion Revolution campaign, IOSH issued “a concerted call for action” for improved supply chain health and safety management to help prevent more avoidable disasters like Rana Plaza.

While legislating for supply chain health and safety still seems a long way off, the UK Government has financially backed a new Corporate Human Rights Benchmark that will assess and rank the human rights performance of international companies.

The Benchmark will research and then rank a total of 500 of the top global companies from four key sectors in a project managed by an international group led by Aviva Investors.

Announcing the funding for the scheme, Jo Swinson, the Government’s Business Minister, said, “Companies’ human rights records are under increasing scrutiny … We want to create a ‘race to the top’ where companies that are taking effective action get recognition and those that are not can be held to account.”

Best practice

In the context of this attention on supply chains, health and safety managers and directors may increasingly find themselves called to comment on the health and safety arrangements within supply chain networks which are highly complex. Clearly, this can present major challenges, not least when suppliers may be located on other continents.

The European Agency for Safety and Health at Work (EU-OSHA) has published a review on the subject of promoting occupational health and safety throughout supply chains. The review points out that organisations can promote health and safety by obliging suppliers to take care of their staff. In practical terms, the review notes this could include aspects such as:

  • setting expectations, eg by requiring suppliers to be signed up to international declarations, management standards, safety certification schemes or codes of conduct

  • making arrangements for the monitoring and auditing of suppliers, either by the company itself or an external agency

  • correcting and communicating faults or deficiencies when these appear

  • enhancing necessary health and safety knowledge throughout the supply chain, in particular by sharing information and training

  • the development of partnerships, which could feature companies, trade unions, non-governmental organisations, labour inspectors, and consumer or community action groups.

The complexity of supply chains can make the prospect of managing health and safety within these networks daunting. However, when the alternative is the loss of human life or health, and tremendous damage to corporate reputation by association, not to mention the pressure to pay out millions in compensation, the above strategies may well prove valuable.

In the words of Richard Jones, Head of Policy and Public Affairs at IOSH, “Responsible procurement and effective supply chain health and safety management is essential for saving life and limb and for ensuring successful and sustainable business.”

Last reviewed 9 March 2015