As Bangladesh economy’s service sector has expanded quickly compared to its traditionally larger agriculture and manufacturing sector, the service employees’ health and safety issues at the workplace have now become important concerns to acknowledge and address since service sector employees face different kinds and degree of work-related hazards than which are commonly reported in the other two sectors. Of the 60.8 million employed people in Bangladesh, 24.7 million are working in the agriculture sector, 23.7 million in the service sector, and the rest 12.4 million in manufacturing. The service sector’s contribution to total employment is 39 per cent compared to agriculture’s 40.6 per cent and manufacturing’s 20.4 per cent. In fact, according to the World Employment and Social Outlook, a report published by the International Labour Organisation (ILO), the service sector in Bangladesh has surpassed the agricultural sector in 2020. According to the Labour Force Survey 2016-17 by the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics, the number of employees in the service sector surged between 2010 and 2017, and within the service sector, many of the jobs were created in wholesale and retail trade, transportation, food and beverage, utilities, banking and financial institutions, education, health services, and leisure and hospitality.
The work-related health and safety issues in the manufacturing sector gained some attention in Bangladesh, particularly in the RMG sector, over the last decade thanks to a series of factory fire and building collapses which were widely covered in the world media that created interest in and push from the Western retailers, consumers, donor countries, worker advocacy groups, and development and human rights agencies. Worker safety issues in other industrial sectors including construction, ship-breaking, and tannery have also got some attention and resources for protection.
On the contrary, service sector employees are thought to be working in a much safer environment. Do service workers, commonly referred to as office workers, who often work in urban centres in high-rise and elegant buildings have health and safety issues and concerns that need to be deliberated and addressed?
Office workers perform a wide variety of tasks, including talking to and dealing with the clients, customers, and suppliers; processing financial transactions; making and answering telephone calls; keeping accounting journals; receiving, delivering, or opening of mails, fax, other boxes and shipments; operating office machinery (e.g., computers, photocopier, printers, scanner machines); sorting, filing and retrieving of documents and reports; lifting and moving of boxes, supplies and parcels; and professional work such as typing, writing, editing, reviewing, reading, listening, researching, preparing presentations, maintaining company’s social media accounts; hiring or firing of people etc.
Service workers may sustain injuries from slips, trips and falls. Bangladesh has a long rainy season and when workers enter the office buildings during rain with wet shoes or sandals, and soggy floors are not dried up fast, slip hazards are created. Electrical, internet, TV telephone cords and cables placed randomly are sources of trips. Carpeted offices can create trip hazards when old, ragged, and wrinkling rugs are not flattened, and shoe or sandal heels get stuck into them.
Stairs and elevators can be causes of slips, trips and falls as well. Stairs in many buildings are designed not to make it walk-friendly rather these are quite narrow and clogged to save square footage or more efforts are put to make them look ornamental instead of making walk-safe. Office workers not being careful while climbing up or downstairs have experienced falls. Elevators may not be firmly aligned with the floor and empty and uneven space in between leads to slips, trips and falls. The traditional dresses worn by women in Bangladesh often have loose ends; these and their scarves can be caught between elevator doors. Lack of an alternative power source can stop the elevator all of a sudden creating terror for those trapped inside.
Cuts and bruises have been reported in offices. Paper cuts are prevalent from file folders, envelopes and paper trims. Workers can be injured from walking into tables, doors or drawers that have been left open or unguarded. Office supplies and materials that are inappropriately stored or kept can fall onto a worker or may be placed where a worker would stumble on them. Paper cutters, paper shredders, stapler pins or pencil sharpeners can also be sources of cuts.
Electrical hazards occur when electrical cords are placed across passages and walkways or decayed cords are used. Inappropriate use of extension cords is often seen in offices: these cords are used in place of fixed outlets, have too many items plugged into them leading to electrical overload. Thin extension cords used to energise heavy-duty cords may create a hazardous electrical connection.
Musculoskeletal and soft tissue injuries may result from office fixtures and paraphernalia which are not custom-made for workers. Tendonitis can occur from repetitive movement of fingers or from continuous writing or filing and retrieving of files. Many office workers suffer from carpal tunnel syndrome because of the ill-fitting equipment and the lack of breaks from monotonous activities. Poorly designed furniture and equipment also add to poor posture of extremities as office workers tend to sit for the whole day.
Persistent use of computers and poor overall floor lighting create eye strain. Workers may experience a deterioration of vision, suffer from headaches, burning eyes and eye fatigue. Adjustments in lighting and computer screen contrast and taking consistent breaks are rerecommended by experts to protect eyes.
The recent fatal fire incidents in two hospitals show how poorly equipped the large and reputed private and public hospitals in Bangladesh are in fighting fire. There was another fire in a Banani high-rise that killed 25 people– mostly office workers. Many other offices particularly the high-rises in Dhaka lack firefighting equipment and adequate procedures are not there for workers to exit a building in case of a fire or other emergencies. Emergency plans should be in writing and drills must be practised so that building occupants are familiar with what to do. All workers must know how to evacuate in an emergency promptly and safely. Fire safety is often compromised in Dhaka high-rise offices by obstructing the exits, lack of departure signage, storing of chemicals or flammable materials, defective alarm or firefighting systems, or a complete lack of means of notification in emergencies.
Stress is a major psycho-social health problem for many office workers. This is caused by many factors, including poor relationships with supervisors and/or co-workers, the surge in workload and lack of control of one’s own work, overcrowding, and the use of advanced equipment and machines.
Service sector workers are often considered to have a pleasant, safe, and secure environment to work in. In reality, there are a variety of safety and health problems that are present in an office and these may lead to developing a host of acute and chronic health conditions among these workers.
Bangladesh has quietly transitioned from a predominantly agriculture-based to a service-oriented economy considering the number of workers currently employed. Despite being the largest employment-providing sector, the health, safety and wellbeing of service sector workers have remained largely under-reported and overlooked.
Hasnat M Alamgir is a Professor of Public Health. [email protected]