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Work-related fatalities reach 2 million annually

July 2002

Two million workers die each year through work-related accidents and diseases and that is just the tip of the iceberg, the International Labour Organization (ILO) reported recently.

Latest ILO estimates for the year 2000 show that annually there are two million work-related deaths - more than 5,000 every day - and for every fatal accident there are another 500-2,000 injuries, depending on the type of job. In addition, the ILO said for every fatal work-related disease there are about 100 other illnesses causing absence from work.

In a report prepared for the XVIth World Congress on Occupational Safety and Health at Work, held in Vienna, Austria, in May 2002, the ILO said the number of estimated annual deaths among workers has clearly increased since 1990, mainly because work-related communicable diseases were not counted previously and the number of cases of work-related cancer and circulatory diseases have increased.

During this same period, figures for fatal accidents went up slightly in developing countries but decreased in most industrialized countries.

In his report to the Congress, Dr. Jukka Takala, Director of the International Labour Office's InFocus Programme on Safety and Health at Work and the Environment (SafeWork), said about 270 million workers were involved in occupational accidents annually - of which approximately 360,000 were fatal - while another 160 million workers incurred occupational diseases.

Biggest Killer is Cancer

According to the ILO figures, the biggest killer in the workplace is cancer, causing roughly 640,000 or 32 per cent of deaths, followed by circulatory diseases at 23 per cent, then accidents at 19 per cent and communicable diseases at 17 per cent. Asbestos alone, the report says, takes some 100,000 lives annually. Worse still, 12,000 children die each year working in hazardous conditions.

Agriculture, in which more than half of the workers of the world are employed, claims more than 50 per cent of occupational fatalities, injuries and diseases, Dr. Takala said. A particularly heavy toll of dead and injured occurred in developing countries where large numbers of workers are concentrated in primary and extraction activities such as agriculture, logging, fishing and mining - some of the word's most hazardous industries, he said.

Industrialized countries have seen a clear decrease in the number of serious injuries as a result of structural changes in the nature of work and real improvements in making the workplace healthier and safer, including improved first aid and emergency care, according to the ILO report.

The evolving nature of work, however, has generated new occupational hazards, including musculo-skeletal disorders, stress and mental problems, asthmatic and allergic reactions and problems caused by exposure to hazardous and carcinogenic agents, such as asbestos, radiation and chemicals.

High cost of negligence

Although fatal occupational injuries caused by accidents ranked only third - after work-related cancer and circulatory diseases - as the main cause of deaths at work, fatalities due to accidents usually occur among workers who have a long working career ahead of them.

The economic costs of occupational and work-related injuries and diseases are rapidly increasing, the report said. While it is impossible to place a value on human life, compensation figures indicate that approximately four per cent of the world's Gross Domestic Product (GDP) disappears with the cost of diseases through absences from work, sickness treatment, disability and survivor benefits.

"Let us not forget the impact that these accidents and diseases have on the families of the worker who has become injured, disabled or may have died as a result of work," said ILO Director-General Juan Somavia, commenting on the report. "The emotional distress, the personal adjustment and even the financial survival of the family are also factors that must be considered. At the ILO, we believe that the world has a moral obligation to act. We have seen the human cost of inaction which comes at an economic price. The loss in Gross Domestic Product resulting from this reality is 20 times greater than all official development assistance to developing countries."

Coverage for occupational safety and health varied widely in different parts of the world, according to the ILO. For example, workers in Nordic countries enjoyed nearly universal coverage while only 10 per cent or less of the workforce in many developing countries was likely to benefit from any sort of coverage. Even in many developed countries, coverage against occupational injury and illness may extend to only half the workforce.

"ILO studies show that where there is real social dialogue and community consciousness, risks to safety and health and exposure to hazards are reduced," Mr. Somavia said, "and when workers and employers can organize freely and bargain, the situation improves dramatically. These findings must be part of future strategies to promote occupational safety and health at work."

Strategies to improve safety

The ILO said about 80 per cent of occupational deaths and accidents could be prevented if all ILO member States would use the best accident prevention strategies and practices that are already in place and easily available.

For industrialized countries, priorities need to focus on psychosocial factors linked to poor workplace relations and management, the mental and physical consequences of repetitive, highly technical tasks and information on handling new technologies and substances, including chemicals. In those countries that are still industrializing, priority should be given to improving safety and health practices in primary industries such as farming, fishing and logging, preventing industrial accidents, including fires and exposure to hazardous substances and preventing traditional accidents and diseases, including those in informal workshops and home based industries.

In countries at all levels of development a large proportion of the deaths and injuries by workers can be attributed to inadequate safety and health information. A number of ILO programmes, some developed in conjunction with the World Health Organization and the United Nations Development Programme, aim to improve safety and health information and networking.

These include the International Programme on Chemical Safety, which develops, translates and disseminates clear and standardized information on the properties of chemical substances in the workplace. The ILO also undertakes extensive research and publishes a large number of publications, including the 4,000 page ILO Encyclopaedia of Occupational Health and Safety. ILO activities in developing countries range from chemical safety programmes for small coal mines in China, agro-chemical safety initiatives in Central America and occupational safety information campaigns throughout Africa. In Bulgaria and other central and eastern European countries, and in Viet Nam, modern labour inspection systems have been put in place.

The ILO is emphasizing that key occupational safety and health conventions, such as the framework of Convention No. 155 on occupational safety and No. 161 on occupational health services, should be considered as minimum standards. In addition, the Global Safe Work Programme provides knowledge, advocacy and services in occupational safety and health.

Dr. Takala or the ILO InFocus Programme SafeWork can be reached at safework@ilo.org or by calling +4122/799-6715 or +4179/203-5794.

"Decent Work - Safe Work, Introductory Report to the XVIth World Congress on Safety and Health at Work", Vienna 26-31 May 2002, by Dr. J. Takala, Director, SafeWork, International Labour Office, Geneva.