Walking around Yangon’s industrial zone is a mind-expanding experience. Especially, if your idea of manufacturing consists of acres of factory floors, mile-long conveyor-belts and robots aplenty. Here in South Dagon, where our own factory resides, heat blazes from open furnaces, sparks and debris fly in all directions, thunderous mechanical volume and the boiling stench of industry penetrate your skull. Hard-hats, overalls and safety glasses are as rare as Irrawaddy dolphins.
In our own factory, convincing staff of the importance of health and safety has been an uphill struggle. Todd Murphy joined Proximity four years ago as Manufacturing Advisor and it was one of his first priorities to instill some disciplines in the health and safety area.
“Getting a system in place was the easy part.” Todd says. Appropriate equipment was purchased. Signs were designed and hung on walls. More lighting was added and everything was given its place and well ordered. Workshops were held about the dangers of the workplace and, after everything was set in motion, very little changed; a few people donned the overalls but the wholesale changes required to avoid danger never came. Boots remained un-scuffed on shelves, goggles stayed on their nicely designed racks. Welding and hammering continued with gusto and heavy objects just got carried straight past it all.
So, what was missing?
“Most Myanmar industrial workers have only seen Myanmar industrial standards and you don’t need to go too far from our door to see what the ‘norm’ is.” Says Proximity’s Manufacturing Manager, Thwin Naung Soe (aka Bob). When Bob stopped to ask staff why they weren’t wearing the gear, they told him that the safety equipment inconvenienced them. Goggles were interfering with vision, boots were hot or caused mobility issues and “that guy over there took my earmuffs.” So, they invested in better gear and more rigid rules and regulations and this helped move things to the next stage, but Bob knew this ran deeper than the quality of the equipment. This was entrenched mentality and habit. Not everyone was following protocol. Ergo, an accident was waiting to happen.
Bob decided to take the personal approach. He wanted insight into why many workers would still not wear their safety gear, despite availability and ease. Some of the workers explained that industrial workers don’t believe they are more special than the next guy. Why would they protect themselves more than the others? There is little awareness of a safe environment so the standards in the industrial zone have been accepted as normal. People just expect to get injured; it’s what this type of work leads to. The mentality is: “I’m a man working in this industry, it will happen someday. So why should I inconvenience myself everyday?”
So, Bob became a counselor. He approached this mindset with an attempt to explain to his employees that they should not just see themselves as an individual. They should also see themselves as a family member - someone who brings home income for their family to survive. They should see themselves as a co-worker, sharing the load with the rest of the team. We should always be thinking of our environment and how we fit into it, and not just thinking about ourselves. Slowly, steadily, workers gained more pride in what they were doing. They felt more valuable. They started to protect themselves.
The safety journey is not yet complete. We have a way to go but Todd and Bob’s approach is slowly changing the mindset of the team. Day by day, safety is becoming a way of life. Who knows, maybe there’s even hope for the Irrawaddy dolphin?