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Making a safer garment industry in Haiti

The deaths of more than 400 workers in fires that occurred in recent years at garment factories in Bangladesh and Pakistan are painful reminders that ignoring basic safety standards can amount to a life or death decision.

Occupational safety and health (OSH) is a fundamentally important value for industries in a developing economy to have from the start.  And occupational safety is much more than just making sure fire escapes are working and bars on windows designed to prevent theft don’t keep employees trapped inside a burning building.  It’s about changing a culture, and educating a workforce and its management about best practices that are ultimately replicated in daily operations.

That’s why the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) has spent the last three years teaming up with Better Work Haiti (BWH) and  The Cahn Group to help improve OSH in the Haitian garment and textile industry. 

OSH training in Haiti is a priority for IDB support of its lending investments across the region (especially in the private sector).  So in 2012 an initial training approach was created that included both factory managers and OSH committee members in the Haiti garment industry. The idea was to provide lasting benefit, first in Haiti and then potentially to other IDB investments in the region.  BWH enterprise advisors also joined in the training process to get some useful inputs for their own capacity building workshops.

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IDB and its partners spent 2012 and 2013 honing the training’s core content, which proved comprehensive.  BWH summarized its own experience in the Haitian garment sector.  All the partners identified global best practices in OSH.  They drafted an overview of health, safety and environmental (HSE) issues in the apparel industry,   and they worked to produce evidence of a relationship between improved OSH and increased productivity.  By the end of 2013, based on the results of these activities, a discussion paper covering the assessment and mitigation of HSE risks was prepared and shared with key stakeholders.

Centered on feedback from 2012 and 2013, the IDB, BWH and The Cahn Group decided to spend 2014 proving just how sustainable capacity building is in the long-term.  As the Haitians say: “Pito ou aprann moun non peche tan ou ba l’ yon pwason” (“Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime”).

Based on the needs identified by BWH, key members of factories (such as OSH supervisors) were selected to attend train-the-trainer workshops in Port-au-Prince and Caracol.  Workshops focused on three key issues:  Fire and Life Safety, Machine Safety and the form and function of OSH Committees.  And as importantly, workshops provided soft skills training for trainers to be able to present these topics to other workers and feel comfortable doing so.  These soft skills were enhanced using training and presentations tips as well as group exercises where the participants were able to practice real factory situations.

Over the next few months, we will send out surveys and talk to some of the participants in order to evaluate the effectiveness of the train-the-trainer approach and how they’re using the tools acquired.

Will this approach ensure that factories are safer over the long run?  Will the factories get what they need from management to ensure sustainability?  We certainly hope so.

Serge-Henri Troch is a senior environment associate in the Environmental Safeguard Unit of the IDB.

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