Hesperian Health Guides

Helping workers learn about health at work

In this chapter:

The best people to help other workers learn about and organize around health at work are the people who believe workers can work together to change their world.

A person who wants to help workers learn about health at work and organize to make work safer is called a "worker health promoter." A worker health promoter does not know everything about how work affects people’s health. She does not have a solution for every problem at work, nor for every issue workers raise. But a worker health promoter can make a big difference.

A worker health promoter can be anyone who:

  • workers respect and will talk to.
  • has experienced and understands that health problems at work are caused by both physical and social conditions.
  • knows that working conditions are designed by people and can be redesigned to protect people’s health.
  • believes healthy and empowered workers can build a healthy and sustainable business.
  • believes that people with information, training, and the right tools can make better decisions and be safer and healthier.

Worker health promoters are usually volunteers. If there is a factory or union safety committee, they may be part of that. What makes them worker health promoters is their commitment to improve workers’ lives by improving their health and safety at work.

a group of women talking near a large sheet of paper with the heading "Juanita's Problems."

3 people reading a book together.
Everybody can learn about health at work.

Your role as a worker health promoter is to:

  • Know enough about health at work to guide workers towards the information and advice they need to take action.
  • Teach workers how to observe their workplace, identify problems, and find the resources they need to solve them.
  • Build relationships with friendly OSH professionals to bring their technical support to answer questions from you and your co-workers.
  • Raise workers’ self-esteem by encouraging them to become active in their own health at work. Workers are their own best advocates — they are the ones who experience problems directly and will benefit the most from improving health and safety at work.
  • Support workers who are ready to organize around the issues that are most relevant to them.

Worker health promoters in Mexico

a woman speaking.
We created this organization so we can share our concerns and learn about our rights. Now we can speak up at work and be heard.

Promoters who work with the Comité Fronterizo de Obreras (CFO) in Mexico talk to workers and encourage them to talk with each other about conditions at work. Often the process begins slowly, with 3 or 4 people discussing their problems and frustrations. Through this process, the workers in the groups gain self-confidence. Usually it starts with small steps, such as role playing a confrontation with a supervisor. Once she’s practiced with friends, a worker has the confidence to say to her boss: "Don’t yell at me. I hear you fine when you talk in a normal tone of voice." Supervisors are often shocked to find even minimal resistance, and workers learn that they have power.

Encourage workers to analyze problems and act on solutions

The human mind is the best tool a person has to understand and change the conditions that affect her and her friends, family, and co-workers. Activities you carry out with workers, even informal discussions, should encourage people to think, not just follow. Ask people, "What do you think?" and always look for something useful and positive in every answer. Make sure you listen to everyone, not just the men with the loudest voices. When someone disagrees about the cause or result of a problem, explore the issue rather than dismissing it. A contrary opinion can be an opportunity to talk about the different challenges we face in our jobs and the different ways we can act to make our work lives better.

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A good worker health promoter moves:
from sharing facts
to learning and teaching skills
from sharing stories
to solving problems
from the classroom (theory)
to the factory (practice)
a worker health promoter speaking and showing the example of a chair that needed a cushion.
This is how we work.
How to improve bad chairs
1. Observe
2. Analyze
3. Take action

Advice from worker health promoters

Start with what workers know

Start every project, training, and discussion by asking people to share what they already know or experience. To help people think about how work conditions might hurt their health in the future, start with what they might be experiencing now. The activity Draw a map of the body, is an example of an activity in which people first share what they know so the promoter can then teach new information.

Even if a person has worked at a factory for many years, probably he has never been asked about how to make the factory better. More than anyone else, workers have inside knowledge about their jobs and often the best ideas about how they can be made safer, more efficient, and more satisfying. Always ask workers to offer their ideas and make time to discuss them.

Work on the big problems

Try to solve the problems that cause the most harm first. For example, you might feel the most important problem is to limit exposure to dangerous chemicals at work, while some workers might feel the most important thing is to be paid more. One solution might be to demand fewer hours of work with toxic chemicals but no decrease in pay. At the same time, you can also press for safer chemicals and better ventilation.

Focusing first on issues that can be more easily changed and improved might give workers the energy and self-esteem to push for more important changes.

a target with the center labeled "Essential to know," followed by rings labeled "Useful to know" and then "Nice to know."
Teach what is most essential.

Teach what is most needed

There is a lot of information available about health and safety at work. But it takes too much time to cover everything, and it can be more confusing than helpful to receive too much information at once.

Ask yourself, "What information will be most useful for our workplace?" Make the most essential information the center of your classes or trainings. Focus on what will enable workers to take action — the tools, ideas, and information that help people think critically about their situation and prepare them to find their own answers and solutions.

Use words people understand

Experts often use technical words that have an exact scientific meaning. They learn this technical language when they study, and tend to use it not only to be accurate but also to show they have gone to school and gained power and status.

But most people do not use technical language. As a worker health promoter, you can translate difficult terms into the words that people use every day, even if they are not perfect or "correct." Always invite people to ask you to stop and explain a word or idea they do not understand, or offer to talk to them separately later. People do not need to know proper technical language to improve their workplace.

a man speaking while pointing to a drawing of the respiratory system; listeners look confused.
Inhalation of ammonia leads to edema in the bronchioles.
a man speaking while pointing to a drawing of 2 sick workers; a listener responds.
Breathing in chemicals can hurt you
Can't breathe
Have you ever had trouble breathing?
Always in the mornings!
Less appropriate More appropriate

Teach people how to learn

Everyone learns best when they get a chance to participate and do things instead of just listening to someone talk. Ask all the members of a group to give ideas about how they would solve a problem. Role plays between the boss and workers are fun ways of getting people involved and having them come up with arguments for and against a solution. Worker health promoters share information and ideas, while encouraging people to come up with their own ideas. But their most important job is to teach people how to look for information, and how to discuss it with their coworkers to see if it makes sense. When you do this, you help workers develop self-esteem and self-reliance and learn problem-solving skills, and also encourage them to take initiative.

Get help when you need it

When conditions at work are dangerous or the factory management is clearly doing things that are illegal, you and your co-workers might not feel you can safely stop work or correct the problem yourselves. The laws in your country may allow you to call the Labor Ministry, the Fire Department, or another government agency to compel the employer to correct the problem and enforce standards of safety, health, working conditions, or salary and benefits.

The right to workplace inspection Wgthas black-ilo.png

The ILO Labor Inspection Convention (No. 81) says that governments are responsible for establishing labor inspections as part of the law. Inspectors can be either female or male and should have the power to:

  • go into a workplace without giving notice, especially if they believe the law is being broken.
  • talk to workers.
  • look at any documents relating to work.
  • post notices in the workplaces about laws.
  • take samples of materials or substances for further testing.
  • inspect workplaces as often and as thoroughly as is necessary to ensure the effective application of the law.

The Labor Inspection Convention also says that inspectors should be part of an inspection system that:

  • reports to the government.
  • enforces the laws regarding hours, wages, safety, health, child labor, and other issues.
  • offers technical information and advice to employers and workers.
  • reports abuses to the government, even if they are not covered by existing laws.

The roles of the UN, ILO, and other international organizations that promote workers' rights are explained in Appendix A.

Where to find information and support

There are many ways to collect information about work dangers and solutions. Many OSH professionals like to help workers — that is why they went into that area of work. Do not be afraid to ask for their help. Sometimes a person who answers a few simple questions will become an ally who will support your organizing in other ways.

Your co-workers are your best source of information about conditions at work and practical ideas to improve them. Talk with workers regularly to share ideas and information. Do not speak only with people you already know. Make it a habit to talk with new people every week.
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Unions usually have information on the rights and health of workers in your country and industry. They have specific information about dangers in the industries in which their members work. Unions may also have experience solving workplace problems, organizing workers, negotiating contracts, and pressuring employers to make changes. Learning from their experience can give you many ideas for what to try or what to avoid.
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Community groups can be very helpful with resources and information about laws, rights, strategies for community education and organizing, and local political conditions. Women’s groups, religious groups, and political organizations are often active in campaigns for worker’s rights and health. Some of these organizations have national and international connections that may be useful for collecting and sharing information for a campaign.
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Government agencies can provide information about dangers in your industry, and the laws and regulations protecting workers’ rights and health. They can tell you how to file a complaint when working conditions violate the law, and how the law is enforced. Before you go to the government for information or help, consider whether the official or agency has the power and political support to help you.
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Safety and health professionals may be able to provide technical information about dangers and some solutions for them. They know where to buy equipment, tools, and supplies your employer may need to fix dangerous problems. They may have equipment to measure how dangerous your conditions are. They often know the laws and regulations on workplace safety and health. They can help you access reference books, other professionals, and the Internet to get more information.
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Company records may contain useful information on a variety of topics: how wages and work hours are documented and paid, injuries and illnesses workers are experiencing at work, how much money the company earns and spends, what chemicals they use, or if they have measured health dangers. In some countries, the law requires the employer to give this information to workers who ask for it.
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The history of your employer may contain incidents when the employer has mistreated workers or had a disaster such as a fire or chemical spill. You may find out if the factory manager or owner has helped the community or how they are connected to local government officials. Look in old newspapers or government files. Talk to current and former workers at the factory. Ask community groups about them. You will need to judge who to ask, how to ask to learn what you want to know, and how to understand the answer according to the history of the company with the person you ask. Keep in mind that two people may honestly remember the same events very differently.
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Books and the Internet can be good sources of information. Look for health, chemical, industrial, and business information. You can usually find information about your country’s laws on workers’ rights, workplace safety, women’s rights, and so on. You can also find detailed information on work dangers and the names of organizations that have more information.
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Advice for occupational safety and health professionals

Each one of us has valuable knowledge and experience, but nobody "knows everything." This is true for experts too. As an OSH professional, you can help workers think critically about what they know and what they are told. When there is controversy and information from employers or experts does not seem right or does not correspond to their experience, encourage workers to trust their doubts, try to learn more, and challenge it if necessary. If they are mistaken, you can help them find and evaluate the information that will change their minds.

an OSH professional meeting with a group of workers; one of them points to a list on a blackboard.
No guards
Involve workers at every step.

Talk to workers first. Ask workers about their experiences. Focus on the reality of a factory and what happens rather than the ideal conditions, book knowledge, or statistics.

Prioritize what is best for workers and the community even when it might be easier to prioritize what is cheapest or fastest, what is best for profits, or what best serves the ambitions of politicians or employers.

Pay attention to social issues such as wages or harassment. These are health and safety issues too. Health at work depends on more than machines and tools.

Be honest about prejudices. Some safety and health experts work for unions, others distrust them, even when unions are recognized as important partners by the company or government.

Share your knowledge with workers so that they can become better advocates for health and safety.