Global perspective Human stories

With job related deaths topping 2 million annually, UN calls for preventive steps

With job related deaths topping 2 million annually, UN calls for preventive steps

With job-related accidents and illnesses claiming more than 2 million lives each year, and the toll rising because of rapid industrialization in some developing countries, the United Nations labour and health agencies joined forces today in calling for preventative safety strategies worldwide.

Occupational diseases, ranging from cancers to respiratory illness to circulatory diseases, have become by far the most prevalent danger, accounting for 1.7 million annual work-related deaths and outpacing fatal accidents by four to one, according to new estimates released by the International Labour Organization (ILO).

Beyond the death toll, there are 268 million non-fatal workplace accidents each year in which victims miss at least three days of work, and 160 million new cases of work related illness, the estimates found.

“Despite significant improvements in health and safety in many parts of the world over the past several decades, the global challenge of providing for worker health and safety is ever greater today,” World Health Organization (WHO) Assistant Director-General for Healthy Environments and Sustainable Development, Kerstin Leitner, said in a statement marking World Day for Safety and Health at Work.

“Significant and more long-lasting health gains could be achieved if greater emphasis were placed on effective policies and programmes for primary prevention. In many locations, particularly in developing countries, these are weak or virtually non-existent. From a public health perspective, prevention through safety measures is better and also less expensive not only to workers individually, but to the society at large.”

The figures indicate that accidents have levelled off in many industrialized and newly industrialized countries, while some countries now undergoing rapid development in Asia and Latin America are experiencing increases.

“This is happening because in the newly developing countries workers are often coming out of the rural areas, with few skills and very little training in safe work practices,” ILO Safework Programme Director Jukka Takala said. “Most have never worked with heavy machinery, and some have little or no experience with industrial hazards such as electricity, so they don’t know how dangerous these things can be.”

In the construction industry, at least 60,000 fatal workplace accidents occur each year worldwide, about one death every 10 minutes, accounting for 17 per cent of all accident fatalities, while construction workers also face a number of health risks, including exposure to asbestos laden dusts, silica and hazardous chemicals.

The most common illnesses are cancers from exposure to hazardous substances, musculoskeletal diseases, respiratory diseases, hearing loss, circulatory diseases and communicable diseases caused by exposure to pathogens. Globally, asbestos alone is responsible for 100,000 deaths per year, with pesticides causing a further 70,000 deaths and at least 7 million cases of acute and long-term non-fatal illnesses.

WHO called for strengthening surveillance and developing basic national occupational health profiles, building capacity through a network of agency centres to make current information on various risk factors widely available and establishing a minimum package of occupational health services focusing on primary prevention.

ILO highlighted the need for better coordination to address safety and health issues on construction sites and a greater focus on reducing work related illness. The agency estimates that workplace accidents and illness are responsible for the loss of some 4 per cent of the world’s gross domestic product (GDP) in compensation and absence from work.