How Nestlé made workplace safety real in Bangladesh

The global conglomerate has made worker safety a priority in its supply chain – and wants others to follow suit
The global conglomerate has made worker safety a priority in its supply chain – and wants others to follow suit
21 March 2017 •

Key takeaways

  • In developing countries like Bangladesh, worker safety requires major mindset changes in both the workplace and the home
  • Nestlé’s occupational health & safety programme revolves around house visits, safety-related events, and constant discussions with both workers and their families
  • Multinational corporations can improve worker safety – and avoid potential tragedy – by enforcing stricter standards amongst business partners and contractors

“You have to put safety into perspective for your workers, show them what it means for their livelihoods and their families,” says Stéphane Nordé, Managing Director of Nestlé Bangladesh. “Ultimately it’s in your own best interests: take care of your people, and they’ll take care of your company.”

In Bangladesh, where inadequate occupational health and safety regulation exists – and more than 1200 workers died due to work-related accidents last year – Nestlé’s track record in worker safety sends a compelling message to other businesses. The Swiss company recently celebrated 2000 consecutive accident-free days since inception of its main Distribution Centre in Gazipur, operated in partnership with DHL.

Most of that comes from slowly changing how Nestlé’s workers think about safety. That’s no mean feat for the leaders of both companies, in a country where it took a major tragedy - the 2013 collapse of the structurally unsound Rana Plaza building – to drive safety to the top of the national agenda.

“Most workers in Bangladesh have no concept of safety precautions, whether it’s in the workplace or outside,” Nordé elaborates. “If you can change people’s mindsets about safety, you can minimise the risks for them and your business – but that requires real investment, both time and money, in building personal relationships with your workers.”

When safety hits home

Apart from rigorous training and frequent occupational health and safety discussions in the workplace, Nordé and his team take less conventional steps to make safety a priority – including quite literally driving the message home for the over 170  employees. In 2016, Nestlé Bangladesh began a house-visitation programme where managers and executives spend time visiting their workers’ homes, getting to know their families, and conducting basic safety checks on domestic essentials like electrical wiring and plumbing. Doing so helps raise employees’ awareness on safety and its importance in general – making it much more than just another rule to be obeyed in the workplace.

“Our people get it when you explain the consequences of an accident to them. It’s something that most haven’t really thought about before,” says Nordé. “We encourage them to think about the consequences of no longer being able to work, what might happen to their children, their parents as a result of losing a major, if not the only source of income. We also talk to our workers’ wives: they play an important role in influencing the atmosphere at home and making safety a constant priority in their families’ lives.”

In Bangladesh, family units play a crucial role in changing perceptions around staying safe at work.

Apart from the house visitations, Nestlé also conducts frequent family days and other employee events designed to make safety into a family discussion. “We show the kids how our plant and supply chain equipment works, teach parents how to handle at-home risks like cooking with children nearby…we want to make safety a topic that connects the entire family,” says Nordé. “Our mandate is to create a new way of thinking and this is the only way of doing so.”

Counting the cost

All these investments in safety do not come cheap, but Nestlé’s leaders see these as a basic cost of doing business that can be increasingly recouped in other areas.

Technology, for example. “We’ve begun working with DHL to bring in radio frequency scanners, warehouse management systems, even GPS tracking of our trucks – all of which should optimise our production and distribution processes,” says Nordé. “We need to stay cost-effective against other competitors, and technology can help us do that. But for us, safety costs are non-negotiable: you can’t retain the workers without taking care of safety.”

That attitude has begun to gain traction amongst businesses and government in Bangladesh, especially after the Rana Plaza collapse in 2013. But despite the formal charges to enforce safe practices in the country, Nordé believes that there’s much more to be done, and that multinational corporations have a particularly important role to play.

"Our people get it when you explain the consequences of an accident to them. It’s (just) something that most haven’t really thought about before.”

“MNCs must not only act as models for worker safety, but also put pressure on local companies to conform to good occupational health and safety standards,” Nordé says. “If you make safety standards or certifications a requirement for working with you, local companies will comply simply to get the business. And if enough of us do that, government will feel a need to invest more in audits and inspections that shows their commitment on a national level.”

Working with safety-minded partners helps. DHL, which has kept two other warehouse facilities in Bangladesh accident-free since opening in 2006, constantly advises and assesses Nestlé’s own processes to keep safety standards strong.

“When we work with partners like DHL, we set a clear example to the rest of the world about the value we put on our employees’ wellbeing. We can only work so well together because ‘safety’ joins our cultures: we’re constantly sharing and helping one another to improve our processes and safeguards. The more companies take this approach, the fewer tragedies we’ll see destroying our businesses and our people’s lives.”