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close this bookLow-Cost Ways of Improving Working Conditions: 100 Examples from Asia (ILO, 1989, 190 p.)
close this folderINTRODUCTION
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentSelection of examples
View the documentTypes of improvements
View the documentThe potential for action
View the documentContributions of case studies


It is sometimes argued that improvements in conditions of work and occupational safety and health are too costly for developing countries. Expenditures for social purposes are said to threaten the competitiveness, profitability and even the survival of enterprises which are depended upon to contribute to economic growth and create new jobs. It is contended that developing countries can only meet working conditions standards in special cases, and that general measures which require improvements are unwelcome and counterproductive interference with more important economic matters.

In response, it may be pointed out that the economic costs of occupational accidents and diseases are very high and moreover that sacrificing the worker in order to reduce the cost of production is an unacceptable principle in even the poorest societies. These arguments are quite valid, but unfortunately there are many circumstances in which they have not been sufficiently convincing. There is a tendency to see the costs of improvements as certain and substantial and the benefits as potential and peripheral.

The purpose of this book is to demonstrate that significant improvements can be made in conditions of work and occupational safety and health at very low cost. Many of the ideas which are described are appropriate for widespread application. It is hoped that these ideas will encourage a change in attitudes about the cost of improvements and that they will stimulate inventiveness in the search for better conditions.

Low cost does not mean technically unsound. The improvements which have been selected for this book are not proposed as alternatives to established standards, but as ways of meeting and going beyond those standards. This is especially important with regard to occupational safety and health hazards. It should be kept in mind that this book is a collection of examples, not an attempt to deal with occupational safety and health in a systematic way. Many very important subjects are not covered at all. Because these examples have been gathered from several countries with differing regulations, some of them may not be sufficient to meet the standards of every country. In such cases, it should be clear that the local requirements must be met.

There are several reasons for emphasising low-cost improvements. The low cost encourages employers to consider improvements favourably. Low-cost improvements tend to be simple and this simplicity provides opportunities for immediate action. In addition, the possibility of undertaking a series of simple actions, each of which has immediate and visible effects, encourages learning by doing and the development of a process of change rather than ad hoc responses to specific problems.

Selection of examples

The meaning of “low cost” varies according to the circumstances of the country and of the enterprise concerned. What may seem a very minor expenditure in one case may represent a difficult financial decision in another situation. Moreover, the actual cost depends on local wage and materials costs, whether or not an outside supplier must be used and other factors. It was therefore necessary to adopt a pragmatic definition of low cost rather than a specific amount of money. The following cost criteria were used to select examples:

- the actual financial outlay should be within the day-to-day possibilities of most enterprises, including smaller enterprises;

- the materials and labour required should be easily available, wherever possible within the enterprise itself;

- examples which increased productivity or work quality at the same time they improved working conditions are emphasised, especially if the gains are clearly identifiable.

A straightforward procedure was followed Fifteen institutions from ten countries participated: Bangladesh, Burma, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan, the Philippines, Singapore, Sri Lanka and Thailand. Of these institutions, five were university departments, two were independent research institutes, five were labour inspectorates and three were governmental research and training institutes. They are listed at the end of this Introduction. The collaborating institutions were asked to report examples of low-cost improvements for each of several aspects of conditions of work and occupational safety and health. Case reports were made using a standardised form which emphasised cost measurement. Photographs or drawings of the improvements were also provided wherever possible. In all, 236 cases were reported. One hundred selected cases are compiled in this book. In addition, brief information is provided on additional similar cases at the end of some of the case descriptions.

Types of improvements

Three main areas of potential improvement in working conditions are covered; work organisation and workstation design; the working environment; and welfare facilities. In each of these areas, a great variety of measures were found in all the countries which participated. Very often, these improvements are outside the scope of national regulations or go beyond legal requirements. They have frequently been adopted as means of increasing productivity. The main types of improvements under each of these three headings are summarized below.

Work organisation and workstation design:

- simple changes in workstations, such as machine-feeding devices, jigs and fixtures, better placement of components and tools, improved layout of controls and displays, use of pneumatic devices, introduction of less strenuous work methods and provision of platforms or adjustable chairs;

- better materials handling, including the provision of push-carts, use of leverage in tools and materials handling, improved methods of lifting, use of mechanical aids and improved transportation routes;

- arrangements for good housekeeping, storage and access to work locations, for example by clearing passageways, use of handrails, installing storage shelves and racks, providing waste boxes or trays, improving drainage and arranging easier and safer access to work areas;

- better job content and work schedules, including re-design of tools and machines for less stressful operation, avoidance of continuous standing, introduction of job rotation and insertion of frequent short breaks.

The physical work environment:

- better lighting through installation of skylights, painting walls in light colours, lowering or re-positioning lights, improving lighting fixtures and arrangements to reduce glare and increase contrast;

- reduction of heat and noise by isolation or screening of sources, use of thermal barriers or noise dampeners, longer tools to enable work further from heat sources, insulation of machines or parts producing heat or noise and use of protective equipment;

- better handling, use and storage of hazardous substances including prevention of spillage, dust control and enclosure of hazardous processes;

- effective guards and other safety devices, including locally-made guards, foot guards, face shields, metal sheet or mesh guards, welding partitions, two-hand operating devices and handrails near dangerous places;

- safe working procedures, including mechanical aids, mechanical inter-locks, special warnings and instructions, improved work stands allowing safe work motions, improved electrical wiring, ready access to fire extinguishers and work methods which make injuries less likely.

Welfare facilities;

- improved sanitary facilities including repair and cleaning of toilets and provision of waste bins, washing facilities and changing rooms;

- provision of drinking water or other beverages and arrangements for meals, such as safe water sources or filtering devices, a tea break corner, a small canteen or eating place, arrangements for subsidised meals and delivery of packed lunches;

- provision of recreation, child care and transport facilities, such as sports facilities using available space, a reading corner, creches or various arrangements for daily transportation of workers.

The potential for action

The many different problems of working conditions and environment in developing countries cannot be solved all at once: progressive improvement is necessary. Here, however, problems arise. It is often difficult for enterprises to identify and apply feasible, appropriate measures. In addition to economic difficulties, most enterprises lack access to technical knowledge and specialised personnel.

One immediate possibility for the use of this book is therefore to encourage action by employers and workers at enterprise level. It makes clear that there are many simple, inexpensive solutions to nearly all types of working conditions problems. This shows that a fresh look at existing problems can lead to ideas and action which are practical and effective. Many of the examples in this book can be directly applied. In other cases, modifications will be necessary but the ideas can be used as a point of departure. In still other cases, an entirely original solution will be found.

This book may also be used to support training at various levels. It can be added to the training materials for inspectors, safety and health personnel and welfare officers in addition to managers, supervisors and workers. Local examples are of great value in such training. These may be collected using this book as a guide.

In applications at enterprise level and in the training of various groups, the following points should be discussed:

- the existence of a wide variety of solutions to problems, many of which are low in cost;

- the value of a fresh, unbiased look at conditions which have become accepted because they have always existed, not because they are inevitable or efficient;

- the need for persons suggesting improvements to consider cost and practicality. This can be especially important for inspectors and other technical specialists;

- the direct and indirect benefits of many of these improvements. The cases report a number of measurable productivity benefits, as well as savings in time, higher product quality and less waste. Reductions in accidents, disease and fatigue are important to worker morale and motivation in addition to avoiding costs to the enterprise.

These points suggest a common interest on the part of government agencies, employers' organisations and trade unions in promoting improvements in working conditions. The identification of low cost improvements is a valuable first step in the action required towards a safer, heathier and more productive working environment.

Contributions of case studies


Dr. M.A. Khan, Bangladesh Project Management Institute, Dhaka


Mr. Saw Lin, Director General, Factories and General Labour Laws Inspection Department, Ministry of Labour, Rangoon


Mr. T.B.R. Mani, Chief Inspector of Factories (Health and Safety), Tamil Nadu, Madras

Mr. S.B. Hegde Patil, Director General, Central Labour Institute, Bombay

Dr. R.N. Sen, Ergonomics Laboratory, Department of Physiology, Calcutta University Calcutta


Dr. A. Manuaba, Department of Physiology, Faculty of Medicine, University of Udayana, Denpasar

Mr. E.J. Sawong, Head, Research and Documentation Centre for Manpower and Development, Yayasan Tenaga Kerja Indonesia, Jakarta


Mr. Abdul Jalil Mahmud, Director General, Factories and Machinery Department, Ministry of Labour and Manpower, Kuala Lumpur


Mr. Abid Ali Khan, Industrial Hygienist, Medical Inspectorate of Factories, Punjab, Lahore


Miss L.S. Lazo, Deputy Director, Institute of Labor and Manpower Studies, Ministry of Labor and Employment, Manila

Mrs. S. Tiong-Aquino, Assistant Director, Institute for Small-scale Industries, University of the Philippines, Quezon City


Dr. Foo Swee Cheng, Department of Social Medicine and Public Health, National University of Singapore, Singapore

Sri Lanka

Dr. M. Rajendra, Senior Inspecting Medical Officer, Factories Division, Department of Labour, Colombo


Dr. Chaiyuth Chavalitnitikul, Director, National Institute for the Improvement of Working Conditions and Environment, Department of Labour, Bangkok

Dr. Malinee Wongphanich, Occupational Health Department, Faculty of Public Health, Mahidol University, Bangkok.