Eight workers’ deaths during the construction of the World Cup venues brought health and safety in Brazil – briefly – to the world’s attention, before it was eclipsed by football. But away from the glare of the cameras, what are standards really like in this country that’s playing an increasingly important role on the world stage?
On 9 May 2014 Mohammad’Ali Maciel Afonso became another grim statistic. The 32-year-old, an employee of a company called Etel, was working at level 20 of Cuiabá’s Arena Pantanal, which rises high above the sea of terracotta tiles atop the single-storey houses that form the suburbs of this Brazilian city. The town is known as the gateway to the vast Pantanal, a natural region that encompasses the world’s largest tropical wetland area – a prime location for spotting some of the wildlife Brazil’s famous for.
The stadium was five months behind schedule, having been slowed down in part due a large fire that broke out in the basement seven months before. In just a month’s time, 40,000 fans would pack the stadium to see Chile beat Australia. As he installed communications equipment, Mohammad was struck by an electrical discharge. Firefighters and paramedics rushed to the scene and attempted to resuscitate him, but he became the eighth worker to be killed during the construction of Brazil’s 12 World Cup venues.
As deadlines slipped – seven of the venues were still to be completed when Mohammad was electrocuted – workers across South America’s largest country rushed to complete the infrastructure and stadiums before the world arrived on its doorstep. But as they did, fatalities on the venues (and not the infrastructure) began to intensify to the rate of nearly one a month.
Dr Ruddy Facci, the medical director of Brazilian consultancy International Institute of Health at Work (Instituto Internacional Saúde no Trabalho – or INSAT for short), said the deaths received high-profile and controversial attention: “Personalities and Brazilian politicians tried to minimise the issue, including the most famous athlete from Brazil, Pelé, who said that ‘this was normal’. The National Association of Occupational Medicine of Brazil – ANAMT – severely criticised this statement, because nothing justifies deaths at work.”
But those eight people that died building the venues for the World Cup represent only a fraction of the total deaths at work in this country that is playing an increasingly important role in the international arena.
According to the International Labour Organisation, just under 3,000 people died at work in Brazil in 2011. Given that, by World Bank estimates, Brazil had a workforce of 103m in 2011, the country’s fatal accident rate was in the region of 2.9 per 100,000 workers across all sectors of the economy.
In the same year there were a further 636,118 injuries that caused employees to spend a day or more off work. In reality, however, this figure is likely to be much higher; in 2013 the ILO reported that approximately half of Brazil’s economically active population work in the informal economy, where incidents are much more difficult to document and quantify.
Nevertheless, Brazil’s economy has grown rapidly over the last 10 years: it is the world’s seventh largest by nominal GDP, according to figures from the International Monetary Fund – placing it just behind the UK – and South America’s largest. The country’s GDP has more than quadrupled in size since 2002. As one of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa – all emerging economic powerhouses), the country is likely to play an evermore important role in the world’s economic and political scenes.
Some of the industries that are growing more rapidly are also perhaps some of the most dangerous: recently Brazil’s construction industry has generated more jobs than any other sector. There were 3.12m new jobs created in 2013, according to Brazilian government figures, in part due to the boom in the housing sector and continuing work to prepare for the World Cup and Olympics in 2016. But there was a correlative increase in the number of work-related accidents: in 2010 there were 55,000 work-related accidents reported; 62,000 in 2012.
The president of the São Paulo construction workers’ union Sintracon-SP, Antonio de Sousa Ramalho, blames excessive hours and lack of site inspections by the authorities. “We realised that the Ministry [of Labour and Employment] has few professionals to perform the inspections, especially after the growth of the housing market and the Olympics. In addition, there are many irregular works across the country that end up surviving thanks to the corruption of some agents who turn a blind eye to safety in exchange for bribes,” he said.
The World Cup and Mohammad’Ali Maciel Afonso’s death was set against the background of mass unrest; protests rocked the country’s major cities for weeks over what many considered to be the sky-high price the country was paying for the competition. Protestors complained about the billions spent on meeting FIFA’s venue requirements (global investment banking firm Goldman Sachs estimates Brazil spent $50bn on infrastructure and venues for the World Cup and the upcoming Olympics), when they felt it should be spent on healthcare, education and help for the poor.
As Brazil’s economy grew, more than 22m Brazilians emerged from poverty. The number of people living with less than US$2 a day has fallen markedly, from 21% of the population in 2003 to 11% in 2009. Extreme poverty – people living with US$1.25 per day – also dropped dramatically, from 10% in 2004 to 2.2% in 2009.
Despite these achievements, inequality remains at relatively high levels for a middle-income country. Brazil slumps to 62nd in the world rankings when the GDP is divided by each head of its 200 million population; its Gini coefficient, which, on a scale of 0 to 100, measures income equality (0 being complete equality and 100 complete inequality), is 54.7, placing it among the 10% most unequal of countries for which data is available. To make matters worse, the Brazilian economy slowed significantly over 2011 and 2012. The GDP growth of 7.5% decelerated to 2.7% in 2011 and came to 0.9% in 2012.
Roughly a fifth of the Brazil’s labour force works in agriculture; the country is the world’s biggest producer and exporter of coffee, and produces large amounts of soybeans, cereals, sugarcane, cotton and tobacco. It also has vast mineral wealth, including iron ore, of which is it the world’s largest producer. Large offshore petroleum and natural gas deposits discovered at the begining of this century could make the nation a significant oil and gas producer, but development has been slow, despite the fact that one of the world’s largest companies, oil and gas giant Petrobras, is Brazilian.
Every month, the Brazilian Ministry of Labour and Employment carries out a survey of workers in six major metropolitan areas. According to the latest figures, the largest sector in these areas is retail, responsible for 19% of employment. The construction sector employs 7.6% of the population; public services 16.7%; and energy and utilities, including extraction, 15.6%.
The Brazilian route into H&S
The genesis of Brazil’s occupational health and safety system is somewhat unique. In a paper published in 2002, Dr Ruddy Facci explains that health and safety, counter intuitively, grew out of the slave trade.
Brazil, then populated solely by indigenous tribes, was colonised by Portugal in the 16th century. Once a system of governance had been imposed on the country the colonists established sugarcane plantations. This sugarcane quickly became a valuable export for the Portuguese, who shipped over slaves from their colonies in Africa to work on the plantations. By the 19th century these fledgling industries had expanded to cover textiles, coffee and hats.
“As these slaves were well trained in industrial activities they became valuable,” Facci explains in the paper, Occupational Health in Brazil. “When they became sick, the decrease in performance caused loss to the industries. This was when the slaves started getting medical help, but no thought was given to the possible consequences of the working conditions on the health of those workers. It was only in the period between 1870 and 1900, after more than 300 years of colonialism, that the Brazilian doctors started to discuss the inter-relationship between work and health.”
But health and safety law did not come until much later. Labour laws in Brazil were strongly influenced by developments and trends in Europe and Brazil’s commitment to the International Labour Organisation.
The legal system that provides the framework for regulating health and safety is underpinned by the Brazilian constitution, the current version of which was brought in after years of military rule. Article 7, item XXII, gives urban and rural workers the right to the reduction of “employment-related risks by means of health, hygiene and safety rules”. Article 21, item XXIV, meanwhile, establishes the responsibility of the federal government to organise, maintain and carry out labour inspection.
Health and safety, along with all other aspects of work, are given legal expression by the Consolidation of Labour Laws (Consolidação das Leis do Trabalho – CLT) first introduced in 1943, but since heavily amended. Chapter 5 deals with health and safety, and requires all companies – whichever sector they operate in – to follow and enforce standards of occupational health and safety. A total of 36 regulatory standards, some comprehensive and up to date, others somewhat obsolete, provide more detail as to the actual management of health and safety risks.
Each workplace must also have what is called an Internal Commission for Accident Prevention (Comissão Interna de Prevenção de Acidentes, or CIPA). Dr Facci explains: “The CIPA is a group of workers from a company trained in the prevention of accidents. This training should be done in 20 hours, given by security engineers and occupational doctors.
“The group is formed of a percentage of the total number of workers multiplied by the degree of risk of the company. 50% of the group must be ‘blue collars’, democratically elected among all workers, and the other 50% appointed by the employer. The term has duration of one year, with the right to re-election for over one year. The CIPA should meet monthly, carrying out analysis of accidents, informing the employer and giving suggestions for improvements.”
Responsibility for enforcing health and safety law sits with the Ministry of Labour and Employment’s (Ministério do Trabalho e Emprego, or MIT) Labour Inspection Secretariat (Secretaria de Inspeção do Trabalho, or SIT). SIT is also responsible for the enforcement of other labour laws, such as ensuring employers hire the appropriate quota of disabled people, or sticking to agreements drawn up between employers and unions. The SIT is split into two divisions, one that focuses on health and safety, the other on general labour inspection.
The SIT, based in the capital Brasilia, is responsible for establishing guidelines and for undertaking inspection activities that are implemented by the decentralised branches of the ministry, the Regional Superintendencies of Labour and Employment (Superintendências Regionais do Trabalho, SRTE), located in each of the country’s 26 states. There are approximately 3,000 inspectors covering all labour issues, including health and safety. The Commission for Collaboration with Labour Inspection, a forum attended by the SRTE and trade unions, strategically plans inspection actions and identifies sectors for closer scrutiny.
Meanwhile, the Occupational Safety and Health Tripartite Commission, which is made up of the ministries of employment, health and social security, develops national plans and proposes new legislation in consultation with employers and unions.
And finally there’s Fundacentro, the occupational health and safety science and research body, which is part of the MIT. Established in 1966, Fundacentro aims to promote and disseminate studies outlining solutions for reducing the number of occupational accidents in Brazil. It is similar in function to the UK’s Health and Safety Laboratory.
The way forward
While Brazil may be 5,550 miles away from the UK, one thing is at least the same, as it is perhaps all over the world: the way forward. “As I understand, four key points are needed to reduce accidents and occupational diseases,” Dr Facci explains. “Number one: update the legislation; two: greater supervision by the Ministry of Labour; three: an increased awareness from employers; and four: a greater awareness among workers.” And perhaps there also a fifth: “There’s an aphorism in Brazil,” Dr Facci adds. “When the economy is going up, occupational health and safety gets better; when the economy goes bad, occupational health and safety goes down”.
Let’s hope Brazil’s recent downturn will not create more Mohammad’Ali Maciel Afonsos – for dying at work is not ‘normal’.
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