Turkey remains one of the countries with the highest number of work-related deaths in Europe, despite official figures which indicate that fatalities are falling.
According to statistics gathered by Turkish NGO the Workers’ Health and Work Safety Assembly (İSİGM), 1,923 people died in Turkey in 2018 as a result of occupational accidents. A further 12,000 were estimated to have died of occupation-related diseases during the same period.
In comparison, in the United Kingdom 147 workers were killed in work-related incidents last year.
The official body responsible for gathering such statistics, the Social Security Institution (SGK), claimed that the number of workplace accidents and occupational disease-related fatalities in Turkey had significantly dropped in recent years and was now around 600.
But critics warn that SGK’s data is misleading and either a result of bad record-keeping or the government’s intention to hide the true numbers.
“While European countries have a proper policy on occupational diseases, the main approach in Turkey is to hide this problem,” said Ozgur Karabulut, head of the Progressive Union of Building, Construction and Road Workers (Dev-Yapi-Is). “The state should make some investment in this field and take the necessary measures to prevent occupational diseases. Instead, it doesn’t develop any policy in this regard and ignores this problem altogether.”
In 2015, Turkey stepped up efforts to improve its occupational health and safety system to bring it in line with international standards. According to the ministry’s report from 2016, “occupational accident rates have showed a steady decline during the last 20 years”.
The report also noted that “occupational diseases are very scarce in Turkey. The rate of occupational diseases decreased from 22.1 to 3.1 per hundred thousand workers; ie more than 100 times less than the global average”.
However, Karabulut claimed that the low official figures were the result of bad data gathering, rather than improvements in the system.
“A system should be put in place for early detection of occupational diseases and all the data related to this field should be kept properly,” he said.
Karabulut, himself a construction worker, said that he had personally experienced the failures of the system in his previous job in the retail industry.
“I was on my feet eight hours every day and got varicose veins as a result,” he continued. “I reported this to the doctors at the Sureyya Pasa Occupational Diseases Hospital in Istanbul who examined me and said that this was not an occupational disease, without even asking me what I did for a living.”
DISAGREEING OVER DATA
Since 2011, the ISIGM has gathered data in cooperation with workers, relatives, doctors, engineers, academics, journalists and lawyers. It argues that its figures are more comprehensive than the official statistics as they cover both registered and unregistered workers.
“Although SGK is a public institution, it approaches occupational diseases with the logic of an insurance company,” said Ceyhun Gurpinar, an occupational safety specialist at the Petrol-Is Workers Union.
In 2017, for instance, the ISIGM recorded the deaths of 2,006 people in workplace accidents.
The SGK reported only 633.
Gurpinar said that the ISIGM were more reliable because “they cover a much larger number of workers than SGK does, therefore their data better reflects the situation on the ground”.
An SGK official declined to comment.
The strict official criteria for establishing occupational illness may also have an impact on its data.
Obtaining a diagnosis of an occupational disease is a long and complicated process. After being examined by a number of doctors at several health institutions to get an initial diagnosis, one has to apply to the SGK, which forms a committee to examine the request.
This committee then establishes the extent to which the applicant has lost working capacity. If that loss is more than 10 per cent, the applicant is officially registered and is entitled to certain state and employee benefits.
In the case of a work accident or occupational disease, the employee is entitled to benefits including healthcare, daily cash payments or a pension. In the event of an occupational death, the worker’s family is entitled to funeral costs and pension.
But some workers say that the measures supposedly in place to protect them are effectively worthless. Hasan Oguz, 32, has worked in construction for over a decade, ever since his premature discharge from military service because of respiratory issues caused by lung surgery in childhood.
Nonetheless, he passed all the legally required respiratory tests for people working at construction sites.
“Ever since I was discharged from the military, I have worked at construction sites, where conditions can be very difficult. And yet, not a single doctor or healthcare professional ever told me that I’m not fit for this kind of work,” he said. “These medical exams required for new employees are just a formality.”
Oguz noted that workers were also not equipped with the skills to keep themselves safe.
“The occupational health and safety training provided at the beginning of employment lasts just one hour and most workers forget it quickly,” he said. “That training is yet another formality that does not serve its purpose.”
Tevfik Gunes, the director of worker’s health, safety and training department at the Confederation of Progressive Trade Unions of Turkey (DISK), argued that there had been no significant progress regarding occupational diseases in recent years.
According to Gunes, between 40,000 and 220,000 occupational diseases occur every year in Turkey. The current data-collecting system did not allow for a more precise estimate, he continued.
“There are many hospitals in Turkey that could properly diagnose occupational diseases. Unfortunately, there is no system in place that would enable all these cases to be registered on one database,” he said.
Since 2011, about 200 hospitals have been tasked with providing occupational health and safety services. But Gunes said that the sheer number of hospitals involved did not mean that workers’ needs were being met. According to him, very few doctors have been sufficiently trained to recognise occupational illnesses.
“The ministry of health and the ministry of labour promised that they would develop joint projects and provide trainings for the doctors. However, that never happened,” he said.
Gunes said that a nationwide study was needed, with the participation of “universities, workers’ unions, and professional associations, so that comprehensive data could finally be gathered”.
Campaigners have had some successes. The life-threatening lung disease silicosis is now the most recognized occupational illness in Turkey, mainly due to NGOs’ and activists’ efforts to draw attention to this problem. Denim sandblasters and dental technicians are now viewed as high-risk groups, along with working in the cement and textile industries, as well the mining sector.
However other issues, such as musculoskeletal disorders, merit less attention.
For instance, experts note that the physical effort of working in supermarkets is underestimated, although a recent study revealed that about three tonnes of products go through a cashier’s hands in one eight-hour shift.
Such work can cause permanent musculoskeletal damage and other health problems in the long run, and yet there is very little information available about the potential risks.
In general, the level of awareness of such issues was low, said Gurpinar.
“We conducted a survey among 116 workers who retired from a factory that produces explosive materials,” he continued. “We noticed that most of them had cardiovascular diseases, while some had cancer. They were all exposed to nitro-glycerine that causes vasodilation [the widening of blood vessels] and their diseases occurred as a result of that exposure. But the workers were not even aware that their diseases were related to the workplace.”
Mustafa Mesut Tekik, the secretary of general organisation and training at the Petrol-Is Workers’ Union, said that labour unions were too passive when it came to protecting their members’ wellbeing.
“We, as the workers’ union, criticise the state, the authorities and business owners and blame them for everything that is wrong,” he said. “However, we aren’t much better than them when it comes to advocating workers’ rights to be properly protected at work.”
Tekik emphasised that international companies operating in Turkey paid more attention to occupational safety because they feared a potential public backlash.
“These companies walk on thin ice. They are afraid of the reactions in their own countries if proper safety procedures are not followed in their branches in Turkey, but they also fear the reactions of Turkish workers should an accident take place due to the company’s negligence.”
He said he feared that many more people would have to die before decisive action was taken.
“The discussions on workers’ health and safety, along with occupational diseases, started only ten years ago, when Turkey began the harmonisation process with the EU,” Tekik continued. “Unfortunately, this issue comes to the national agenda only after workplace accidents with mass casualties occur.”