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Textile Workers’ Safety

Published: 10th May 2016

Textiles is one of the most labour intensive industries there is. Demands placed on supply chains in the sector, many of them from big multinational retailers, mean that people work long hours.

Much of this work is done in very hot conditions, which are hardly conducive to a productive workforce.

When people think about the garment trade, images of crowded sweatshops full of poorly-paid workers, whose wellbeing is not considered important by employers, often come to mind. I am pleased to say, however, that there are many examples across the Middle East and Asia where this is not the case.

In fact there are some fine examples that I have seen of well-organised textiles factories in which the safety and health of workers is viewed as a priority. These forward-thinking organisations are finding that this does not mean lower productivity; quite the opposite in fact.

Certainly a lot of big-name retailers who rely on these factories for their goods are very conscious about the conditions their products are manufactured in. These days there is much more accountability in the supply chain.

Keeping cool

It is no coincidence that, as well as higher productivity, the manufacturing companies that invest more in looking after their staff experience far lower staff turnover rates. These companies treat their staff well and their staff in turn want to repay the favour by working hard for them, and also enjoy working for them.

So how can workers be kept out of harm’s way in these factories?

It is useful when considering this to start by looking at the risks to workers’ safety and health. Companies can run a health surveillance to help identify where more action is needed to control risks. Such a surveillance can also detect early signs of work-related ill health. If the surveillance reveals anything, employers should take action to prevent further harm and protect their employees.

In the textiles industry in this region, one of the major risks from a health viewpoint is the extreme heat people have to work in.

While textiles workers do not have the outside temperatures – which are often around the 50ºC mark – to contend with, in many cases it can be equally warm inside the factories. They can often feel like fire pits, meaning they are far from ideal working conditions.

This does not mean workers have to suffer. In some factories air cooling systems are being introduced to keep temperatures much lower than outside. Ways of keeping humidity levels to a minimum are also being researched. There are many different systems that can help with this.

One way is to look at controlling the heat through the use of insulating and reflective barriers, such as by insulating furnace walls.

Systems such as these are seen more in newer factories, ones that are being designed and built with occupational safety and health in mind.

The actual design and layout of factories is also important when it comes to keeping workers cool and comfortable.

As mentioned earlier temperatures outside can be very hot, so ensuring that workers are not exposed to direct sunlight through windows and doors is important. This may seem obvious, but it can help to avoid any potential health issues, especially the risk of workers suffering from dehydration – a common problem when working in hot conditions.

As an occupational safety and health professional whose remit includes the factory where my company’s uniform is produced I am always on the lookout for new and innovative ways of keeping workers protected from the heat.

For example, we are now seeing some outdoor workers, such as security guards, using air cooling vests and other clothing designed to lower body temperature by getting rid of excess body heat.

Clothing is important when it comes to protecting staff who work indoors as well as outdoors, including those in factories. I’d recommend they wear light summer clothing that allows free air movement and sweat evaporation.

It is important that we keep innovating and looking for new products on the market that can be used to protect workers, including those who work indoors such as garment factory staff.

As well as product and factory designs being used to keep workers cool, companies can also look at the physical demands of the work being carried out. By this I mean using mechanical assistance, such as hoists and lift tables, which take away the need for any heavy lifting.

Basic hydration

Having looked at the design of factories and technology such as air cooling, as well as the clothes people are wearing, it is a fact that garment factories do still tend to get very hot and humid, especially with the machinery they have operating inside them.

This brings about the risk of worker dehydration. When workers become dehydrated they feel unwell and their productivity levels naturally drop, something that no company wants to experience. Worse still it can also lead to them becoming so ill they need time off work, which comes at a significant cost to a company.

It is reassuring that forward-thinking businesses recognise this risk and are fully prepared to offer solutions before issues arise, viewing them as an investment rather than a cost. After all, it is better to invest in the welfare of staff to make sure you can meet the demands of clients – as it is much harder to do this with staff off sick.

One such solution to the risk of dehydration is for companies to provide easy access to cold water throughout factories. This may sound pretty basic, but by regularly taking fluid on board, workers will remain fresh and be in a much better position to focus on their jobs. Essentially by keeping hydrated they perform better for their employers.

Companies should ensure that staff are able to have regular breaks away from their workstations so they can eat and take on any extra fluids that they need. As mentioned earlier regarding air conditioning, these break areas should be cool.

Supplying workers with things that keep them hydrated and encouraging them to take regular breaks must be accompanied by some education, to first explain why they must do this.

To make sure they get the best use of what is provided, firms need to be able to get across messages to their staff about the importance of remaining hydrated. Having the hydration readily available is one thing, but it is meaningless if it is not used by those for whom it is intended.

Companies can run courses for their workers that can provide information to them on looking after themselves in extreme conditions and what pitfalls there are when they do not do this.

The previous examples are pretty basic ways of ensuring workers can cope with working in hot temperatures. As well as keeping workers hydrated the other great thing is that these need not cost companies a lot of money. Small investments like these in looking after workers can really benefit businesses.

Hearing and MSDs

There are other inherent risks to worker’s health that employers in the garment trade must consider, one of which is the impact of noise brought about by the huge amounts of machinery that is nearby workers.

This is one of the most common health risks within the textiles industry. In the worst cases it can cause irreversible hearing damage.

Again this does not have to be the case, as controls can be put in place that will minimise the risks. These controls include keeping workers’ exposure to noisy machinery to a minimum.

It is difficult for workers in sectors like the textiles industry to completely avoid being in areas where noise levels are high. While bearing in mind that personal protective equipment should always be the last in the hierarchy of controls, good-fitting ear protection can be of real benefit for employees. Here again training can be given on the reasons behind the protection and the best ways of making it fit.

It is not just people’s hearing that needs protecting in textiles factories. Another common issue is musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs), which is brought about by manual handling that employees need to perform.

How, you may ask, do employers know if there is an issue with MSDs that needs addressing? I would suggest there are many things they can look out for. Injuries and health problems can show up in different ways, including:

• Complaints about back and limb injuries

• Other aches and pains

• Poor product quality

• High material waste

• Low output

• Frequent worker complaints and rest stops

• Do-it-yourself improvements to workstations and tools, for example seat padding

• Workers wearing bandages, splints, rub-ons, copper bracelets or magnets

As with other health issues in the textiles industry, if employers have a problem with MSDs it will be costing them money through sickness absence, high staff turnover, retraining and loss of production. Compensation cases are also common, which can have an impact on insurance premiums.

Once an organisation has identified that it has an issue with MSDs it must act. As referred to earlier there are ways of providing mechanical assistance when it comes to manual handling.

Fires and explosions

It is not just health matters that need to be considered in garment factories. It is important that safety is taken into consideration. In the textiles industry, nearly all materials that are being used are flammable, some more so than others. This brings about the risk of fires.

It is very important that textiles factories control these risks. Before we can attempt to look at controls, however, it is necessary once again to identify what the risks are.

The risks are:

1.  The presence of loose materials such as fabric off-cuts or open layers of wadding. In addition, low density fibres burn very easily.

2.  Deposits of fluff and dust that can be blown about throughout factories. A particular risk is brought about by dust getting stuck on light fittings. Cotton fly is very hazardous when it is on fire because it is very difficult to put out, as it is so light and gets blown about by even light jets of water.

3.  Oily fibres like cottons and wools contaminated with oil from the spinning process, making them flammable.

4.  Rough, raw edges on rolls or bales. The latter tend to burn on the surface and smoulder underneath. This deep-seated smouldering in bales is extremely challenging to put out from the outside.

5.  High piles of stock, especially if close together, can increase the speed at which a fire spreads.

6.  Traditional textile mills are constructed using lots of wood and have cotton fly present, meaning that a fire can spread rapidly.

7.  Flammable liquids that ignite easily or oxidising agents that may make an existing fire more intense by fuelling it with oxygen.

With the hierarchy of controls, the ideal scenario would be that we could eliminate these risks, but in many circumstances that is not possible within textile factories. That being the case, factories should have very stringent controls in place for fire risks. These should include fire wardens as well as clearly sign-posted and unobstructed fire exits.

It starts at the top

Responsible employers will view the safety and health of their workforce as a top business priority. Businesses that invest in the wellbeing of workers experience improved reputation, resilience and results.

If workers are not treated well they will not perform as they would when they can see their employer is genuinely concerned for their welfare.

Having people off sick – dehydration, among workers can lead to high rates of absence – costs businesses a huge amount of money, much more than it does to invest in their welfare to prevent possible illnesses in the first place.

On top of this, having workers who are healthy means that they work far more efficiently and therefore their output is much improved and of higher quality.

Many big-name clothing brands are very keen that there is accountability and transparency in their supply chains. They do not want the people who work very hard to manufacture the goods they sell to suffer.

If those at boardroom level view safety and health seriously then this can be spread right down through the supply chain. In turn this will make sure that the clothes we wear are manufactured by workers who are well looked after and know they will return home at the end of the day in the same state of health as when they left.

Published: 10th May 2016 in Health and Safety Middle East

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Nathan Seal