ILO Estimates Over 1 Million Work-Related Fatalities Each Year

GENEVA (ILO News) - Over one million work-related deaths occur annually according to ILO estimates and hundreds of millions of workers suffer from workplace accidents and occupational exposure to hazardous substances worldwide, the Chief of the ILO's Health and Safety programme told delegates assembled today in São Paulo at the opening of the 15 th World Congress on Occupational Safety and Health.

Press release | 12 April 1999

GENEVA (ILO News) - Over one million work-related deaths occur annually according to ILO estimates and hundreds of millions of workers suffer from workplace accidents and occupational exposure to hazardous substances worldwide, the Chief of the ILO's Health and Safety programme told delegates assembled today in São Paulo at the opening of the 15 th World Congress on Occupational Safety and Health.

In a speech to the introductory session of the Congress, Dr. Jukka Takala, Chief of the ILO's Health and Safety programme, pointed out that the workplace hecatomb of 1.1 million deaths exceeds the average annual deaths from road accidents (999,000), war (502,000), violence (563,000) and HIV/AIDS (312,000). Approximately one-quarter of those deaths result from exposure to hazardous substances which cause such disabling illnesses as cancer and cardiovascular, respiratory and nervous-system disorders. He warned that work-related diseases are expected to double by the year 2020 and that if improvements are not implemented now, exposures today will kill people by the year 2020.

In addition, he said that by conservative estimates workers suffer approximately 250 million occupational accidents and 160 million occupational diseases each year. Deaths and injuries, he said, continue to take a particularly heavy toll 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 world's most hazardous industries.

Also, according to ILO, some 600,000 lives would be saved every year if available safety practices and appropriate information were used:

  • every year, 250 million accidents occur causing absence from work, the equivalent of 685,000 accidents every day, 475 every minute, 8 every second;
  • working children suffer 12 million occupational accidents and an estimated12,000 of them are fatal;
  • 3,000 people are killed by work every day, 2 every minute;
  • asbestos alone kills more than 100,000 workers every year.

ILO estimates show that the fatality rate in advanced industrialized economies is almost half that of Central and Eastern Europe, China and India. In the Latin America/Caribbean region, the fatality rate is even higher and in the Middle East and Asia (excluding China and India), the fatality rates soar to four-fold of that in the industrialized countries. Selected hazardous jobs can be from 10 to 100 times riskier. Construction sites in developing countries are 10 times more dangerous than in industrialized countries.

Industrialized countries have seen a clear decrease 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 which saves lives in the event of accidents. However the evolving nature of work is generating new occupational hazards, including musculo-skeletal problems, 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

The economic costs of occupational and work-related injuries and diseases are rapidly increasing. The ILO expert says that "while it is impossible to place a value on human life, compensation figures indicate that approximately 4 per cent of the world's gross domestic product disappears with the cost of diseases through absences from work, sickness treatment, disability and survivor benefits." The Gross Domestic Product (GDP) lost in work-related injuries and diseases is more than that of total GDP in Africa, Arab States and South Asia together and more than all official development assistance to the world's developing countries.

In addition to suffering material shortages and inadequate medical facilities, developing countries's problems are compounded by rapid industrialization and migration to cities. According to Mr. Takala, in the context of globalization, industries are being set up, often informal and dangerous ones, engaging workers without previous experience of industrial work. The provision of adequate housing and premises frequently lags the development of new factories and industrial sites.

The need for infrastructure increases construction work, another hazardous occupation, in areas as diverse as housing, roads, dams and power and telecommunication facilities, bringing a host of benefits but also problems linked to modern industrial societies, including traffic, noise, stress, new products and an array of chemical and synthetic materials which may be hazardous if incorrectly used or improperly disposed of. Intense competition for scarce investment capital can contribute to disregard for safety, health and environmental considerations, as the large number of fires caused by toy, textile and similar kinds of factories in developing countries attests.

Coverage for occupational safety and health varies widely in different parts of the world, says the ILO, with, for example, workers in Nordic countries enjoying nearly universal coverage while only 10 per cent or less of the workforce in many developing countries is likely to enjoy any sort of coverage. Even in many developed countries, coverage against occupational injury and illness may extend to only half the workforce.

Strategies to Improve Safety

While arguing for the largest possible coverage of all workers, the ILO says that different strategies to improve occupational health and safety are needed in light of the different circumstances countries face. For industrialized countries, priorities need to focus on psychological 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 industrializing countries, priorities need to focus on improving safety and health practices in primary industries such as farming, fishing and logging, preventing industrial accidents, including fires and leaks of hazardous substances and preventing traditional accidents and diseases, including those in informal workshops and home-based industries and involving exposure to silica dust, which is extremely hazardous and results in a large number of unnecessary premature deaths each year.

"In countries at all levels of development," Dr. Takala said, "a large proportion of the deaths and injuries by workers can be attributed to inadequate safety and health information." He outlined a number of ILO programmes, some developed in conjunction with the World Health Organization and the United Nations Development Project 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 , which was published in an updated 4 th edition last year.

He cited a number of activities in developing countries, ranging from chemical safety programmes for small coal mines in China, agro-chemical safety initiatives in Central America and occupational health and safety information campaigns throughout Africa.

Dr. Takala urged the Congress delegates to set a number of measurable targets for improving occupational health and safety. These include improved policies and legislation, wider availability of occupational health services, improved infrastructure and manpower and better recording and notification systems. In many industries, occupational and work related diseases and injuries are not even reported: "An improved safety culture is partly a question of resources and technology, but above all it requires better information, management and higher ethical standards in confronting the ever present and ever evolving dangers of the workplace," said Dr. Takala.

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 is being launched to provide knowledge, advocacy and services in occupational safety and health and to place this high on the global, international and national agenda.