This story was written by the ILO Newsroom For official ILO statements and speeches, please visit our “Statements and Speeches” section.

Global workplace deaths vastly under-reported, says ILO

Some 2.2 million people die of work-related accidents and diseases each year, the International Labour Office (ILO) said in a new report to be issued Monday at the 17th World Congress on Safety and Health at Work, adding this number may be vastly under estimated due to poor reporting and coverage systems in many countries.

Press release | 18 September 2005

ORLANDO, Florida (ILO News) - Some 2.2 million people die of work-related accidents and diseases each year, the International Labour Office (ILO) said in a new report to be issued Monday at the 17th World Congress on Safety and Health at Work, adding this number may be vastly under estimated due to poor reporting and coverage systems in many countries.

While the number of work-related illnesses and deaths has lessened somewhat in the industrialized countries, the ILO report said the number of accidents - in particular fatal accidents - appear to be increasing, particularly in some Asian countries due to poor reporting, rapid development and strong competitive pressures of globalization.

"Occupational safety and health is vital to the dignity of work", said ILO Director-General Juan Somavia. "Still, every day, on average, some 5,000 or more women and men around the world lose their lives because of work-related accidents and illness. Decent Work must be safe work, and we are a long way from achieving that goal."

What's more, the ILO report, entitled Decent Work - Safe Work, ILO Introductory Report to the XVIIth World Congress on Safety and Health at Work, Orlando, USA, also warns that work-related malaria and other communicable diseases as well as cancers caused by hazardous substances are taking a huge toll, mostly in the developing world. The majority of the global workforce lacks legal or preventive safety or health measures, accident or illness compensation and has no access to occupational health services.

"The sad truth is that in some parts of the world, many workers will probably die for lack of an adequate safety culture", said Jukka Takala, Director of the ILO SafeWork Programme. "This is a heavy price to pay for uncontrolled development. We must act swiftly to reverse these trends."

The report noted that men, in particular, are at risk of dying at working age (below 65) while women suffer more from work-related communicable diseases, psycho-social factors and long-term musculo-skeletal disorders. In several industrial countries, more than half of the retirements are based on early retirements and disability pensions rather than workers reaching the normal retirement age. While not all factors behind these trends are directly caused by work, the workplace is in a key position for prevention and maintaining work ability through its management system.

The ILO report said reporting systems and coverage of occupational safety and health in many developing countries are poor and in some cases deteriorating. For example, India reports 222 fatal accidents while the Czech Republic, which has a working population of about 1 per cent of India, reports 231, the ILO said, adding that it has estimated the true number of fatal accidents in India at 40,000. The report said such statistics suggested that only a fraction of the real toll of work-related death and disease is covered in a number of developing countries.

The ILO report also noted that hazardous substances cause the deaths of an estimated 440,000 workers each year. Of these, asbestos alone kills some 100,000 workers worldwide each year. The number of people killed by asbestos in the United Kingdom, according to that country's own estimates, is some 3,500 every year - more than ten times the number of workers killed in accidents there.

The European Union, meanwhile, recently in its own Statistical Portrait Report estimated a total of 120,000 fatalities (EU 15) attributed to work while the ILO's estimate is now at 122,000 work-related deaths annually. The United States number is estimated to be 103,000.

While work-related diseases are the main problem in industrialized countries, accident hazards are more prevalent in the developing economies where workers are frequently dying in mishaps that occur in such sectors as mining, construction and agriculture. In the industrialized countries, the share of the workforce in such hazardous sectors has declined while that of safer service industries (office work, banking, commerce) has grown.

Furthermore, the findings show younger workers (age 15-24) are more likely to suffer non-fatal occupational accidents than their older colleagues, while workers over the age of 55 appear to be more likely to suffer fatal accidents and ill-health than others, the ILO report said.

New data in the report also shows that women suffer much more than men when it comes to work-related communicable diseases, such as agriculture-related malaria and bacterial and viral infections as well as musculo-skeletal disorders. Men tend to die as a result of accidents, lung diseases and work-related cancers, such as those caused by asbestos. The end result is aggravated in certain parts of the world by HIV/AIDS. Life-expectancy rates in many developing countries and economies of transition have plummeted far below the official retirement age of around 65 and even below the average actual retirement age of 59 to 61 years in the industrialized world.

Mr. Takala added that most workers in the world are not covered by legal preventive measures and will never receive compensation in case of accidents and diseases. He also said most have never seen an occupational doctor or a labour inspector.

The report also says that newly emerging problems such as psychosocial factors, violence, the effects of alcohol and drugs, stress, smoking and HIV/AIDS are rapidly leading to increased morbidity and mortality worldwide. Smoking, which affects mostly workers in the restaurant, entertainment and service sectors, is estimated to cause 14 per cent of all work-related deaths caused by disease, or close to 200,000 fatalities. The ILO also estimated that the cumulative loss of labour force participants due to HIV/AIDS since the start of the epidemic had reached 28 million worldwide by 2005. The ILO's educational programme, Addressing Psychosocial Problems at Work (SOLVE) is working in many countries to address these problems at both a policy and a shop-floor level.

The ILO said action at international, regional, national and enterprise levels is a prerequisite to preventing or reducing work-related accidents and ill-health. It has developed a new five-point "Global Strategy" to encourage the use of existing tools such as the Occupational Safety and Health Convention, 1981 (No. 155) and other ILO labour standards on safety and health at work. The strengthening of national occupational safety systems through tripartite collaboration is fundamental and this includes legal provisions, enforcement, compliance and labour inspection capacity and capability, knowledge management, information exchange, research and support services. Management systems, such as the ILO-OSH2001, are vital but they are best motivated by laws, regulations and efficient enforcement. Inspectors should not be considered as nuisance or threats to business, in fact countries with the best inspection systems are also the most competitive ones worldwide.

"The ILO has been actively supporting initiatives in countries developing national policies", Mr. Takala said. "For example, tripartite national construction safety committees have been set up both in Argentina and Colombia, with the purpose of discussing and formulating the respective national policies and programmes for that sector". Ireland, Israel and Argentina have recently formally signed agreements with ILO to adopt the ILO Management Systems Guidelines.

There are other signs of progress as well. Some highlights include Japan, which recently became the 28th member to ratify the ILO Convention on Asbestos and plans a total ban on the substance. Luxembourg has pledged to ratify all 21 ILO Conventions on occupational safety and health. China has established a comprehensive national profile on occupational safety and health with a view to ratifying Convention No. 155. At last count, 134 countries have ratified the Labour Inspection Convention, with Estonia being the latest.

The ILO new Global Strategy considers that development of international collaboration is a key factor in intensifying preventive efforts and mobilizing resources to promote occupational safety and health at work. This year, some 115 countries organized numerous national activities on 28 April to mark World Day for Safety and Health at Work which was launched by the ILO to build on the original trade union observance of this day as the International Day for the Commemoration of Dead and Injured Workers.

Strong partnerships are being built by ILO with World Health Organisation (WHO), International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), International Maritime Organization (IMO), International Commission of Occupational Health (ICOH), International Occupational Hygiene Association (IOHA), International Association for Labour Inspection (IALI), International Ergonomics Association (IEA) and others. Examples include such important initiatives as the Global Programme for the Elimination of Silicosis and Joint African Effort with WHO, chemical safety with nine international organisations, radiation protection with IAEA, safety and health in ship breaking with IMO and Basel Convention on Transboundary Waste, development of basic occupational health services with ICOH and many others.

The ILO considers the World Congress on Safety and Health at Work, of which it is a co-organizer, a key event in terms of the exchange of technical and practical experience, but also a valuable promotional opportunity to increase awareness of the human and economic costs of accidents and diseases at work.

For more information, please contact The ILO Department of Communication at +4122/799-7912 or email: