Emergency workers under increasing pressure, UN labour agency says

Emergency workers under increasing pressure, UN labour agency says

Faced with shrinking work forces and longer hours, fire fighters, police, paramedics and others in the public emergency sector are under increasing pressure to cope with rising crime, violence and accidents, according to a new report by the United Nations International Labour Organization (ILO).

The report, released to the weeklong Joint Meeting on Public Emergency Services: Social Dialogue in a Changing Environment, which opened today in Geneva, says that in addition to rising crime, violence and terror attacks, the public emergency sector in many countries are increasingly facing new challenges as a result of deteriorating working conditions. The meeting, focusing on front-line emergency workers, is set to review trends in working conditions and work out a set of guidelines to address the new demands facing the emergency sector.

According to ILO, public emergency sector workers must often contend with long working hours, a shrinking workforce and, in many countries, a lack of fundamental workplace rights including the right to strike. Emergency workers face "the most hazardous environment, next to that of military personnel in combat," the report says, often risking their lives to save others. The role of these workers is constantly adjusting under the impact of changes in technology and in the nature of industrial activities, as well as increasing crime and violence.

The study and the meeting reflect new attention being focused on public emergency services in the wake of the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York, which killed over 400 fire fighters and police officers.

The report says that while employment in the sector is increasing slowly - just keeping pace with rising demand in a few countries like the United States - in some European countries budgets and employment were being constrained. It also notes with concern that in a country like Mali, one fire fighter serves 33,435 people.

In addition, the ILO report says that in most countries emergency service workers find their basic rights at work restricted and are often deprived of coverage under labour laws applicable to other workers. It outlines acceptable ILO alternatives in such essential services for protection of people's lives and safety, including adequate, impartial and speedy arbitration procedures to safeguard public emergency services worker's interests.