Alarming rise in work-related accidents

Work-related accidents in Latvia led to 34 deaths in 2012, with another 223 people suffering serious injuries. The figure is higher than in previous years. The Free Trade Union Confederation of Latvia feels people do not take workplace safety seriously enough. The union used shock tactics during a protest at the beginning of 2013 to highlight the issue, when 34 mannequins, representing those who had died, were wrapped in sheets and laid on stretchers in the centre of Riga.

Background

The Free Trade Union Confederation of Latvia (LBAS) has highlighted the problem of accidents at work in the country. The union claims that twice as many workers die from work-related accidents in Latvia than in other EU Member States and says the incidence of workplace accidents is increasing.

In 2010, 25 people died at work, and 155 suffered serious injuries. In 2011, 33 died, and 192 were seriously injured. In 2012, there were 34 deaths and 213 serious injuries, and up to 11 March 2013, 13 had died, and 33 had suffered serious injuries.

Union’s shock tactics

In order to highlight the issue of safety at work, LBAS organised a protest campaign, which it hoped would have a certain shock value. From 25 February to 3 March 2013, 34 mannequins wrapped in white sheets were placed on stretchers in Esplanādes Square in the centre of Riga. They symbolised those who died in workplace accidents.

On the final two evenings, the display area was surrounded by lighted candles.

During the course of the campaign, representatives from LBAS, job safety specialists and representatives from high-risk businesses were on hand to discuss the issues with members of the public. They also talked about statistics regarding workplace accidents and the results of the survey conducted by LBAS.

The trade union pointed out that the main causes of workplace accidents were workers' carelessness and recklessness. However, the union said employers also tended to neglect job safety and worker protection issues. People living in Riga, as well as tourists, were fascinated by the installation. Many acknowledged that their initial reaction was shock. The campaign sparked discussions about who should take responsibility for workplace accidents – the employer or employee.

Good legislation no guarantee of work safety

Some people who saw the display said workers tended to ignore safety rules and that they were often prepared to work under dangerous conditions to earn more money.

Discussions confirmed the results of the LBAS survey and other surveys in Latvia. These found workers had little knowledge of, or interest in, workplace safety issues. In the LBAS survey, 31% of workers acknowledged that, at their workplace, safety issues were regarded as ‘a mere formality’. The same percentage also declared that instruction in work safety consisted simply of signing the instruction manual; that there was no training in work safety, and safety-related issues were not discussed. Only 20% of those surveyed said they received regular and meaningful safety training.

The survey also revealed that:

  • 30% of those surveyed always observed work safety requirements;
  • 66% admitted they observed only those regulations whose violation could directly endanger their lives;
  • 25% of workers would be happy to forgo the use of safety equipment such as gloves, helmets and protective goggles in exchange for a higher salary.

During discussions it was evident that many workers were unable to cite work safety regulations that applied to them.

However, it should be noted that, in Latvia, there is a strong legislative base for ensuring work safety. It includes the Labour Protection Law and 20 supplementary normative regulations. Observance of work safety requirements is also monitored by the State Labour Inspectorate (VDI).

Commentary

The impact of this campaign was somewhat lessened by the fact that, in September 2012, there was a similar protest against the legalisation of abortion, with rows of figures in another square in Riga representing unborn children. Nevertheless, the LBAS felt a visual campaign would be the most effective way of trying to shake society out of its indifference and passivity towards this type of problem.

Even though current legislation and monitoring systems are strong, the desired results cannot be achieved without the participation of workers. It is hoped that regular updating of informative material and information systems will help, as will the introduction of an electronic toolkit to simplify the implementation of routine safety procedures, such as risk assessment.

Raita Karnite, EPC, Ltd.

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