Situation of occupational Safety worldwide
In a matter of seconds, the eight-story textile factory Rana Plaza near Dhaka (Bangladesh) was a pile of rubble. The collapse of the building in the early hours of April 24th, 2013, is considered one of the biggest tragedies in the textile industry. Of the more than 5,000 employees, who mostly produce goods for European fashion companies, more than 1,100 died and more than 2,000 people were injured. The causes: construction defects, a lack of safety standards and lax inspections. During the investigation of the causes and the course of events of the tragedy, inhumane working conditions were uncovered – as is the case in many other factories in Asia. In Bangladesh only, 18 factories were shut down. When it comes to issues such as fire protection, child labor, working hours or social security for workers, many companies in low-wage countries still cannot be compared to European safety standards. This is a weak link in the supply chains of many fashion companies that produce their goods abroad.
One year earlier, in 2012, the Ali Enterprise textile factory in Pakistan burned to the ground. A lack of fire protection measures, defective fire extinguishers, barred windows and missing escape routes caused the death of more than 250 people. Also in this case, clothes for European fashion companies were produced. One can only assume that, in both cases, occupational health and safety were completely disregarded. Already then, human rights organizations and trade unions criticized that the poor working conditions were due to the cheap mass production. Since then, global protest movements, for example “Fashion Revolution”, have been drawing attention to such grievances in supply chains and have been fighting for more transparency.
However, not only catastrophes such as those in Bangladesh and Pakistan show how important effective occupational safety measures are. According to the UN organization ILO (International Labor Organization), 2.7 million people worldwide die every year due to inadequate working conditions. Another 160 million people suffer from work-related illnesses and more than 300 million people are injured on the job.
So what is the situation in Germany?
In Germany, production companies are subject to strict statutory minimum standards for mandatory occupational health and safety. These standards are regularly inspected and constantly monitored by the respective employers’ liability insurance associations, external control bodies and trade supervisory boards. In contrast to companies with production sites in Germany, it is difficult for companies that have their goods produced in low-wage countries such as India, China or Pakistan to ensure compliance with such standards in these countries. The German Supply Chain Act, which has just recently been passed, is supposed to remedy the situation and ensure that the respective suppliers and sub-producers comply with social, ecological and labor law requirements when it comes to occupational safety and employee protection.
What are the cornerstones of occupational safety in manufacturing companies in Germany? Michael Hilbig, Head of Occupational Health & Safety at BIRKENSTOCK: “It’s actually a variety of measures that comes into play here. These measures range from the elaborate risk assessment of all machines, constant fire safety checks and complete documentation of all incidents and accidents to the protective clothing that must be available for every single employee. We also conduct regular emission and hazardous materials tests and constantly monitor the quality of the materials used. For this purpose, we have well-trained internal safety experts and external support from recognized companies and organizations. Since we produce our sandals in Germany, we are subject to very strict standards. However, this also enables us to monitor compliance with such standards ourselves.
But even the best occupational health and safety measures are ineffective if employees receive too little information. Michael Hilbig: "In order to be well positioned when it comes to prevention of accidents and to enable all colleagues to always stay up to date with the latest developments in health protection, we offer extensive information on the intranet. Our offer includes e-learning modules on topics such as hazardous substances, explosion protection or first aid as well as a close cooperation between company physicians and Rhineland technical control association (TÜV Rheinland). There is also an obligation to enter every injury, no matter how minor, in the electronic first-aid book. This way, we can ensure transparency and can react swiftly as soon as the same injuries occur more frequently on a particular machine, for example."
In 2020, there were 399 fatalities and 760,492 reportable occupational injuries involving incapacity for work of more than three days in the commercial industry in Germany. This corresponds to an occupational accident risk of 18.45 per 1,000 full-time employees (source: German Social Accident Insurance (DGUV)). Also due to pandemic-related short-time work and suspensions of production, these figures fell by 12.7% (for occupational accidents) and by 20% (for fatal occupational accidents) compared to 2019.
Even though every occupational accident is one too many, BIRKENSTOCK compares very favorably to the rest of the industry: in a nationwide comparison with all production companies, BIRKENSTOCK was around 45 percent below the overall average with 11.5 occupational accidents (per 1,000 full employees and with an incapacity to work of more than three days) in 2020. Compared with companies in the German shoe manufacturing and shoe repair industry, BIRKENSTOCK is 12 percent below average (source: BG ETEM).