Micro Finance Institutions (MFIs) should be greatly concerned with the inter-relationship of micro-enterprise workplace safety, the environment, and human health. The limited research examining micro- and small-scale enterprise indicates that the environment, worker health and safety and profitability are often all severely jeopardised by poor workplace environmental health and safety standards. As important as it may be for micro-entrepreneurs to seek higher energy and resource efficiency, there is even greater social and economic promise in building environmentally-sound practices for worker health and safety.
This section underscores the potential for MFIs to encourage workplace health and safety improvements and the benefits of those improvements. They are examined from an environmental health and safety perspective.
The primary environmental health and safety concerns are:
The poverty, malnutrition, and illiteracy that are part of the working context of the micro-enterprise help to make these poor health and safety conditions more lethal. Social problems such as alcohol or drug abuse on the work site often add another dimension to the problems encountered. Some hazards, such as those related to working without proper safety equipment, are a part of the daily routine while others can be brought on by emergencies, inexperience and haste. Other risks are seasonal or climatic such as those related to hot weather conditions (Shaver and Tong 1991). The description in Box 1, of the Jua Kali industries in Kenya, provides a cross sectoral view of micro-enterprise health and safety challenges.
B. The Chemical and Pesticide Risk
It is widely recognised that chemicals play an important and productive role in many areas of urban and rural economic activity. Pesticides can overcome problems caused by pathogens, weeds, insects and various other pests that affect agricultural production (ILO 1992). However, the use of chemicals and pesticides carries enormous risks and responsibilities that are not always fully appreciated. The concern is not so much with the chemicals, but rather with how they are handled, stored, transported and used. According to the ILO, each year there are hundreds of thousands of cases of mishaps related to chemical use in the workplace resulting in injury and death (ILO 1994b). The toll on workers, production, property and the natural environment has now reached staggering proportions.(ILO 1994b, 79).
Micro-entrepreneurs, both rural and urban, widely use hazardous materials. We know, for example, that the beneficiaries of microcredit loans are using hazardous materials, in some cases through the encouragement of MFIs (Chicoine 1996). In rural areas, the main concern is the indiscriminate use of pesticides. Certain pesticides used extensively in small-scale agricultural activity are so lethal that their use is either banned or is being phased-out in countries such as Canada. The best current example of this is methyl bromide.
Characteristics of Hazardous Substances
Hazardous substances (hazardous materials and wastes from their use) pose a danger to workers, the community and the environment because they display one or more of the following characteristics:
Health Effects on Humans
Some of the health problems attributable to hazardous substances include skin irritations, respiratory problems, poisoning, and in some cases cancer. The ILO (1994b, 80) summarises the situation as follows:
Poisoning by chemicals can occur in several ways. The most frequent way is absorbing through the lungs by breathing in gases, vapours or airborne particles. Liquids can be absorbed through skin. Though least frequent, ingestion of chemicals through eating or drinking is more commonly found where personal hygiene is poor or where food is stored together with chemicals. Transmission of toxic chemicals from the pregnant women to the foetus through the placenta is also known.
It is difficult to say how many of the annual accidents reported by the ILO happen at the micro/informal level; no means exist to understand the extent of the problem. This is partly due to poor health services that cannot effectively diagnose serious maladies or people dying of mysterious causes. If the data on pesticide use in developing countries is any indication, however (see section 1.4), the number of such accidents is probably very significant. Given that many of the workers in the micro-enterprise sector are poor, women [who bear children], unorganised and often uninformed regarding the risks, there is a strong basis to believe that health and environmental impacts of hazardous substances are much more severe than is known(Matchaba-Hove 1996, 1).
The negative impacts of the improper handling of hazardous substances manifest themselves in other ways as well, the most striking example being the use of chemicals such as cyanide by poor people as a means of committing suicide. In Sri Lanka, this is a major social problem.
In addition to their impacts on workers, hazardous substances can contaminate soil and groundwater, pollute air, destroy plants, vegetation and other forms of greenery, and kill or negatively affect wildlife.
Up until the time that hazardous substances enter into the world of the informal sector, there are perhaps reasonable controls in place to ensure their safe use. However, regulation and enforcement of chemical use is non-existent in the informal sector. Governments in the developing world do not have the resources to enforce standards. Chemical manufacturers, importers and suppliers are responsible for providing information on chemicals in the form of safety data sheets. Unfortunately, by the time chemicals reach the informal sector, the data sheets are long gone as hazardous substances have been removed from their original container and resold in smaller quantities to a number of buyers.
It is not uncommon, for example, to be able to buy a product as toxic as DDT or cyanide in small quantities at a local market (Pallen 1989), and even if the buyer were to purchase the hazardous product in its original package, he/she may not be able to read the instructions. Rarely are entrepreneurs or their workers trained or equipped to safely handle these products.
In the absence of a regulatory framework and practical guidance, hazardous substances are then typically used in unsafe worksites that are often makeshift, disorderly, crowded, and suffering from poor lighting, noise, extreme temperatures, dust and fumes, and poor ventilation. These conditions combined with hazardous substances are a perfect opportunity for disaster.
Home-based enterprises (HBEs), which by all accounts represent a large proportion of all micro-enterprise activity, operate either directly in homes or on adjacent property in close proximity to children and other family members. As Tipple (1993, 532) points out:
The use of the home as a base for business has greatly assisted many in the informal sector to develop viable economic activity. . . However, in some cases health, safety and environmental conditions related to HBEs are very lax. This includes working in poorly-lit spaces, exposure to smoke, fire, burning liquids, excessive noise and the indiscriminate use of chemicals. One of the greatest concerns is the safety of children in this environment.
In Lima, Peru, small-scale foundries are dispersed throughout the city, typically in owners homes. Foundry micro-entrepreneurs use bronze and aluminium as raw materials, processing the metal either in underground crucible furnaces or, in the case of the larger micro-foundries, in rotary kilns. Typically, no safety measures are used by the workers or their families, all of who are exposed to smoke and toxic gases from the furnace (Bartone1995, 19).
Even in the absence of reliable statistics, it is generally agreed that the incidence of chemical poisoning is highest in agriculture, meaning the rural entrepreneur is typically working in the most hazardous locational context. Pesticide (insecticide, herbicide, fungicide, rodenticide, etc.) use is far more prevalent than any other hazardous substance rural or urban and is growing. There is a disproportionate number of injuries and deaths related to pesticide use in developing countries as compared with its use in the developing world. As the ILO points out (1994b, 83), industrialised countries use 80 per cent of the world agro-chemicals but probably suffer only 1 per cent or less of all deaths due to pesticide poisoning; developing countries, on the other hand, suffer 99 per cent of the deaths while using 20% of the world agrochemicals.The ILO, quoting a Canadian source, estimates that 10,000 people in developing countries die every year due to pesticides and 4 million show symptoms of poisoning (ILO 1994b, 83). The percentage of deaths and poisoning cases related to unsafe pesticide use is increasing in many parts of the developing world, in particular in Africa and Latin America (ILO 1992).
Problems with pesticides begin with the general lack of regulation and information to guide users in developing countries. The ILO notes that xtension services in many developing countries are insufficient, understaffed and without the necessary resources to reach all farmers with adequate advice. Illiterate male and female farmers can not read often complicated labels(ILO 1992, 19).
The case study in Box 2 provides an examination of how the unsafe management of pesticide threatens the life of small-scale farmers, their families, and communities. It also demonstrates how farmers can provide valuable input on how to eliminate risks.
Pesticides are not the only hazardous substances used in farming activities. Fertiliser, equipment use and repair, animal confinement and slaughter, and stored products all present dangers related to hazardous substances (Shaver 1991). Non-farm activities such as cotton ginning also make use of hazardous substances.
An examination of the craft industry provides a deeper perspective on the environmental health and safety hazards found at the micro-enterprise level. A Canadian craft person concerned with on-the-job health and safety led an investigation into the health risks associated with her craft. It revealed that her own health problems and those of her colleagues were work-related. She provided this description of the risks of her trade:
Basically we are exposed to craft materials in three ways: by skin contact, by breathing and by swallowing. Because we cannot see, feel, taste, or smell a substance does not mean it is harmless. When we eat, drink, or smoke in the studio we are swallowing invisible particles of the materials with which we work. When handled without protection, some chemicals can cause skin rashes or burns or else can be absorbed through the skin into the bloodstream. Breathing dusts, fumes and vapours into the lungs may cause skin irritations, allergies, or even lung disease. Some chemicals form new and possibly more dangerous chemicals when they are processed by our lungs or intestines. Repeated use of some art materials such as fibre-reactive or porcine dyes will cause a severe allergic reaction in most people (Ontario Crafts Council 1988, 6-7).
Given what we now understand about the absence of the enforcement of health and safety standards, and dangerous working conditions, it is safe to assume that the micro-enterprise craft industry presents its share of dangers. The dangers associated with the batik and textile industries have been recognised (see Bartone 1995). The Fair Trade Federation (FTF), an association of wholesalers, retailers, and producers committed to providing fair wages and employment opportunities for craft artisans, has made workplace health risks a key priority. Table 1 provides further information on the hazards of various craft industries.
It is clear there is a significant absence of leadership in promoting a healthy working environment. Workers and entrepreneurs are being denied basic rights guaranteed to them under international conventions such as the Chemicals Convention 1990 (No. 170) and the Industrial Accidents Conventions 1993 (No. 174). These conventions specify that workers should be adequately and suitably informed of the hazards associated with their work and be regularly instructed and trained in the practices and procedures which help to ensure occupational health and safety.
MFIs recognise the unsafe working conditions in which micro-enterprises often operate. What has not been as well appreciated is the potential of MFIs to intervene in this facet of micro-enterprise activity. As Stratz (1996, 3) points out, it is a allacy that economic entities operating at a low technological level can not improve their health and safety standards.More importantly, much can be accomplished at low or minimal cost.
Environmental health and safety planning for micro-enterprises will be made easier if undertaken within a planning framework. The overall emphasis of such a framework should be to devise simple interventions that will prevent, rather than control, accidents and other mishaps. Potential areas of intervention include:
It should be stressed that the key to promoting higher environmental standards is to involve micro-entrepreneurs and their employees. They know the dangers and hazards related to their operations better than anyone. They or their families or co-workers have probably been injured or lived through a number of close calls. They also possess a wealth of information on how to improve environmental health and safety standards. As pointed out by Stratz (1996, 10), workers in the informal sector recognise the often serious health and safety problems and, in some cases, general principles of occupational health and safety do exist across the various production sectors. l assessment amongst community development practitioners, stresses reliance on community development skills (Pallen 96). Business skills can contribute as well. There are many shared ideas and values between good business practices and environmental management such as maximising the use of resources and eliminating waste.
Involving beneficiaries is an opportunity to allow them to gain greater control over the environmental health and safety concerns that affect their lives and the success of their enterprises. The understanding that is taught to and developed with beneficiaries will serve them well in the often unstable world of the informal sector and increasingly changing rural setting. Involving beneficiaries will help to ensure that the style and format of checklists and educational materials, such as posters and pictures indicating dangerous situations, are effective. Beneficiaries should be encouraged to present their own ideas about every topic including complex issues such as toxic substances.
As the WISE example demonstrates, there are ways to involve beneficiaries in health and safety programmes. Yet, despite what seems to be a reasonable course of action, many micro-entrepreneurs may not be interested in environmental health and safety. The problems of poverty and malnutrition, which contribute to poor working conditions, remain greater priorities for micro-entrepreneurs. The attitude may be, why should I worry about what may kill me in 10 years when malnutrition will get me sooner?
MFIs can counter this attitude by constantly stressing the many economic benefits of environmental health and safety. Also, packaging other topics with health and safety issues in training programmes is a good idea. This could include business-related subjects or social concerns such as alcohol abuse or child safety. More aggressive means could be employed such as tying the approval of loans to the purchase and use of safety equipment or participation in training programmes. However, this does not provide any guarantees that micro-entrepreneures will follow up on required measures. Finding ways to be successful in this area will require work. As Ayree (1996, 19) suggests, the diversity of the informal sector makes it necessary for occupational health and safety programmes to be gender and activity specific. Even ducatedworkers in industrial countries will ignore safety regulations or not use safety equipment properly.
A number of organisations have a large stake in improving micro-enterprise environmental health and safety, none more so than municipal governments and agricultural departments in rural areas. Health departments in both rural and urban areas are sensitive to these problems as well. It would be a significant achievement if MFIs could play a role in overcoming the mistrust in this area between local governments and the informal sector. Some countries, such as India and Thailand, have government departments that have been very active in the area of worker health and safety standards at the small-scale enterprise level. Health departments and local clinics, despite their lack of resources, could assist greatly, at low cost, in promoting prevention activities (Aryee 1996).
In addition to local governments, international and local NGOs are concerned with health and safety practices. Bilateral donors including Canada, Finland and Denmark are becoming increasingly involved in the issue. The ILO and the World Health Organisation (WHO) have acquired a great deal of experience in this area.
Clean or cleaner technologies can reduce health and safety risks. Substituting non-chemical methods and processes for those which are chemical-based and restricting the use of chemical and pesticides are other useful technical or managerial ixes The examples described in Box 4.4 demonstrate that, with some creativity and a small amount of resources, it is possible to resolve hazardous situations.
In rural areas, excellent technical fix options include chemical-free farming methods such as the development and use of organic fertilisers and the identification and use of local plants and insects with natural pesticide qualities.
An international scientific panel of 68 experts from 23 countries recently concluded that alternatives to methyl bromide are either currently available or at an advanced stage of development for more than 90 per cent of methyl bromide use (PAN 1996). Many of these are non-chemical approaches that are already used by innovative farmers and pest control companies (PAN 1996). For example, crop rotation and inter-cropping methods such as agroforestry can be used to reduce pest damage and hence the need for pesticides.
As Anderson (1994, 27) points out:
research has produced -- and is continuing to produce-- new pesticides that can reduce health risks and lower the stress on the environment. Specifically, pesticides are being developed that target particular pests. Pesticides are available that have shorter lives; their toxicity declines quickly, which reduces accumulation in the food chain and the environment.
Another option for reducing pesticide use is Integrated Pest Management (IPM). IPM involves introducing natural predators into an area and relying less on chemicals to control pests. The technique has proven effective and is promoted widely
MFIs can benefit from a worldwide interest in occupational health and safety and chemical research. There is an enormous amount of information, and a large number of institutional sources of information, available to MFIs. Not all of this information is directly relevant to the concerns of MFIs and some of it will be too technical. There is, nevertheless, a great deal of information that will be of general use. Below are a number of potentially worthwhile sources of information:
1. The United Nation Environment Programme (UNEP)
2. Canada's Workplace Hazardous Materials Information Systems (WHMIS)
3. ILO Information Services
4. PACE, a WHO Initiative
5. Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS)
Occupational health and safety standards is an area ripe for making effective use of information technologies such as electronic mail and the Internet. A growing network of occupational health and safety related information services can be found on the internet. In fact, the CCOHS offers courses on how to gain access to health and safety information via the Internet. Such Internet resources are expected to be become more abundant and accessible (Uusitalo 1995).