Fifty years after our independence from our colonial masters, wither the health of the Nigerian worker?

Since we are very poor with statistics, it is difficult to give precise numbers of deaths and disabilities from occupational sources. The Nigerian workforce covers the civil service, government industries and parastatals as well as private enterprise. In Nigeria, the government is the biggest employer of labour and therefore should take the lead in ensuring the responsibility of workers health.

The government also has the added responsibilty of caring for her citizens. This is why I am astonished at the lackadaisical attitude of government in promulgating enabling and efficient laws to combat workers ill health.

Nigeria was among member countries that signed the Occupational Health and Safety Law in the Geneva Convention of 1981 but it is taking so long for this same law to be domesticated in to our local laws. I understand a bill on Occupational Health and Safety was initiated by Senator Chris Anyanwu almost 4 years ago at the floor of the Senate but we are still waiting for the outcome.

In the UK and even South Africa, there is the Health and Safety at Work Act. The essence is to make it statutory for employers to be responsible for managing heallth and safety in their work places. I read a blog where one Nigerian was lamenting that there is no active law in Nigeria to this effect and I think this is a shame.

Looking through the National Assembly website, there appears to be peicemeal bills here and there. For instance, there are bills to cover workers with HIV/AIDS and also discrimination against workers for whistleblowing. However, it is obvious that these are not enough. I can not remember an employer being prosecuted for not meeting their health and safety obligations.

We are currently in a political situation where agitations reign because of the demise of an amiable President. The president of our country is the number one worker if he must know. The law makers forget they are also workers. It is true that they are paid astronomical total package that will provide them resources to seek medical help when needed but they also know that prevention is better than cure. I hope they do not forget the rest of the workers are their constituents who they have sought to represent.

Traditionally work related illnesses have been viewed as dealing strictly with injuries and illnesses arising from jobs like painful wrist caused by word processing or fractured wrists from falling on slippery floors or exposure to chemicals but other health problems like mental ill health and work related stress are rearing their heads.

In 2006, the World Health Organization gave a global commitment and advised that countries should do the following: provide a framework for concerted action by all relevant stakeholders for protecting and promoting the health of workers, establish a new political momentum for primary prevention and management of risks for occupational and work-related diseases and injuries and strengthen political will for action at workplace, country and international level.

WHO also wants countries to ensure coherence in planning, delivery and evaluation of essential health interventions at the workplace, stimulate the development of occupational health services for all workers, empower the health sector to advocate for addressing workers health problems through policies on employment, social and economic development, trade as well as environmental protection.

There is increasing evidence that workers health is determined not only by the traditional and newly emerging occupational risks, but also by social inequalities, such as employment status, income, gender, and race, as well as by health-related behaviour and access to health services.

A healthy workforce begins with healthy employees at pre-employment. This does not rule out employing persons with disabilities or health problems so long as such health problems are declared apriori to the employment. Afterall attempts have been made by the Immigrations Service though their procedure might have been faulty leading to deaths. The Armed Forces, Police and other paramilitary do it. The coprporate multinationals do it.

My belief therefore is that it is not that we are not aware of the issue; it is the political will to promulgate and enforce the laws for all workers including political office holders and doing it the right way that is lacking.

I must point out that improving occupational health isn't like fixing a pothole. There is nothing for a politician to point to and say, "My party takes credit for that." Results aren't visible within an election cycle. Yet occupational health affects us in ways that last longer than the roads we drive on, or the items we purchase with the money politicians promise to save us.

Everyone agrees in theory that preventing illness is the best way to deal with disease. It's best for the workers who don't suffer, and for their families. It's the most cost effective approach in saving money from health as well. Yet preventing illness and protecting health by reducing work pressures is not popular with most politicians.

Committed individuals determined non-profit organizations, courageous scientists and doctors and a few farsighted politicians and civil servants are the ones who are making sure occupational health issues are recognized and acted on.

How do we get health of the Nigerian worker more firmly on the political agenda? There's no quick fix. Continuing to develop an understanding about what is at stake, and demonstrating by our words and our actions that occupational health is crucial to all of us who are workers, will hopefully lead to an informed working population demanding action which politicians can no longer ignore.

I think the time cannot be better than now. Over the last two years, there have been newspaper reports on illness of many of our politicians. We have had some legislators who have collapsed on the floor of the house and some who have died prematurely in their tenure. No body knows how many workers have died from work related illnesses. So another election cycle is here and I believe that workers' health will make a good campaign point. This is therefore the time for workers to task politicians with regards to what can be done for them to safe guard and improve their health.

It may appear that keeping workers healthier cost more in the short term, the costs may well decrease with time, as the demand for less health increases and healthier practices become more of routine.

If we count the full costs of our decisions, including the hidden costs like health, productivity, and behaviour problems, integrating occupational health into decision making at all levels clearly reduces costs to society.

With political will and a willingness to change "the way we have always done things", major steps can be made to protect workers' health. Putting occupational health on the political agenda requires long term vision. It means assessing risks and benefits by looking at the complete long term costs of our actions. It requires not bowing to the pressure of rich and powerful people, who have the means to go overseas for medical check ups at the expense of state funds. Nigeria is a country where people are very secretive about their health even when they are dying. Occupational health for all will change our economy and our way of life.

Most people care deeply about their health and the health of their children. When governments at any level make commitments to occupational health for all, significant changes can be made. If we see Nigeria as a concern that needs to succeed in the next fifty years then the strong message here is that good workers' health is good business.