An Everest mount in Costa Rica: the most dangerous country to work in?

On May 3 of this year, while I was looking for information on work accidents, between one link and another, I entered the German portal “Statista” which, coincidentally, had just published an article entitled “The most dangerous countries to work in”.

I started reading the article hoping to find the information I needed, without imagining that I would find a piece of information that caused me disbelief: according to the International Labor Organization (ILO), Costa Rica is the most dangerous country to work in. So, I decided to do a little more research. I still did not understand how, among 72 countries, mine was leading this ranking.

I found it hard to believe, not because of nationalism, but because I genuinely believe that Costa Rica surpasses other countries in the region in several aspects such as the quality of the legal framework in occupational safety and health, the technical level of professionals, the quality of universities and the involvement of some public institutions.

Worrying facts

Reaching the summit of Mount Everest has been a dream of many professional climbers. Many have succeeded, but many have also perished in the attempt. To increase the chances of success, climbers must establish a road map and, of course, train, undergo medical examinations, eat well and, most importantly, have great discipline and manage risks. This mountain would have a much higher accident rate if the people climbing it were not properly prepared.

According to ILO data, Costa Rica represents a Mount Everest for more than two million people, with the difference that they do not have the same level of preparation, training and risk management. The data says it: in 2016, Costa Rica had 9421 non-fatal work-related injuries and 9.7 fatal accidents per 100 000 workers. In raw numbers, this means 122 275 claims for accidents and 126 fatalities in one year.

The numbers have not changed. According to the 2021 Occupational Health statistics report issued by the Occupational Health Council (OHC) of Costa Rica, from 2016 to 2021 the number of total events per year has remained above 100,000 and the average duration rate has not been less than fifteen. In other words, not only is the frequency of accident occurrence high, the severity is also high: each event has on average two weeks of sick leave and a large majority of accidents leave moderate to severe consequences. The average number of annual fatalities from 2016 to 2021 is 136, which means almost 5 fatalities per month. This is an alarming figure.

These data are even more worrying when it is known that the average number of informal workers during the last years is 45% in relation to the total employed population. Yes: 45 out of every 100 employed people have an informal job, which evidently represents an enormous underreporting in terms of occupational accidents. As if this were not enough, it is also known that, of the total salaried employed population, between 10% and 15% are not insured in the labor risk regime of the National Insurance Institute of Costa Rica. In other words, we must add some more workers to the underreporting.

A reality without numbers

For several years, I worked in occupational safety and health management in several of the largest and most ambitious construction projects, not only in Costa Rica, but in the region. These were learning projects in one of the most dangerous industries in the world. This allowed me to meet colleagues committed to the prevention of occupational injuries and illnesses. Many of these colleagues struggle daily, not only against the hazards and risks of the companies but also against the companies themselves. This is because there is a need for greater commitment from top management.

No one doubts that the primary objective of a company is profit, but should profit be made at the cost of injuring and making workers sick? Is this ethical? Are the thousands of occupational safety and health colleagues also getting sick because of the environment in which many of them work on a daily basis? This will become increasingly relevant, as there is sufficient evidence linking emotions and stress to diseases of the heart, kidneys and other vital organs.

On July 8, 2023, 24-year-old Dylan Sanchez died while working on a construction site in Tres Ríos, Cartago, Costa Rica. For reasons still under investigation, the disc of an angle grinder he was using made contact with his thigh and probably impacted his femoral artery. Just two days later, a man was reported to have fallen from a ladder in Los Angeles de Cartago, Costa Rica, while working on the second floor of a house. Sadly, he also died.

These are just two recent cases published in the national press, out of a long list of cases that do not come to public light. I have no doubt that there are very important integral efforts in many companies, but something is going wrong. It is important that all organizations set themselves increasingly ambitious targets for reducing their accident rate. It is not an easy task, but the degree of support and commitment to occupational safety and health management must be reviewed. 

More hours worked, less productivity and more accidents?

In February of this year, it was reported that Costa Rica is the second country of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) with the highest number of hours worked, only behind Mexico. On average, in 2021, 2073 hours were worked annually, when the average for OECD countries is 1716 hours. Even so, Costa Rica is one of the least productive countries, with a GDP per hour worked of 121.90 according to an OECD report.

European countries such as France and the United Kingdom have experimented with flexible work schedules with 32 and 38-hour workdays, compared to the 48-hour workday in Costa Rica. It is not only in Europe that working hours have been reduced. For example, Colombia approved the reduction of working hours to 42 hours, gradual, flexible and without salary reduction.

Meanwhile, in Costa Rica, the Legislative Assembly is discussing, with strong support from the Executive Branch, the possibility of compressing the work week to four days, without reducing the number of hours worked. Twelve-hour workdays are proposed, clearly for a particular productive sector, while another sector, predominantly public, will continue to have certain privileges in their schedules and workdays. Four additional hours after having worked eight: a very dangerous cocktail in highly critical tasks such as the use of machinery and vehicles, work at heights, chemical handling, hot work and electricity.

The above data is even more revealing because last year, the OECD ranked Costa Rica third among countries with the worst work-life balance, with a value of 1.3 out of 10. “In Costa Rica, 22% of employees have very long working hours, higher than the OECD average. Among them, 28% of men work long hours for pay, compared to 13% of women,” the report details.

There is evidence that “long working hours can affect personal health, jeopardize safety and generate stress, in addition to having an impact on employees’ families” according to the analysis.

Strict inspection and supervision

Faced with the increase in labor accidents and the not very encouraging numbers that place Costa Rica as the least safe OECD country for working people, one would expect the responsible government entity to take concrete actions. However, instead of increasing, the labor inspection coverage of the Ministry of Labor has decreased and went from a limited 18.7%, in 2019, to an almost insignificant 6.4%, in 2020. Then it increased very little, 6.6%, in 2021.

We all wish for a significant and sustained reduction in the occupational accident rate. However, what is the likelihood of this happening when there is a lack of commitment from top management, stressful working environments for many colleagues, the Executive Branch promotes twelve-hour working days and the regulator is not enough to inspect even a tenth of the companies in the country? Very low.