International Labour Standards on Occupational Safety and Health
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International Labour Standards on Occupational Safety and Health

The ILO Constitution sets forth the principle that workers should be protected from sickness, disease and injury arising from their employment. Yet for millions of workers the reality is very different. Some two million people die every year from work-related accidents and diseases. An estimated 160 million people suffer from work-related diseases, and there are an estimated 270 million fatal and non-fatal work-related accidents per year. The suffering caused by such accidents and illnesses to workers and their families is incalculable. In economic terms, the ILO has estimated that 4% of the world's annual GDP is lost as a consequence of occupational diseases and accidents. Employers face costly early retirements, loss of skilled staff, absenteeism, and high insurance premiums due to work-related accidents and diseases. Yet many of these tragedies are preventable through the implementation of sound prevention, reporting and inspection practices. ILO standards on occupational safety and health provide essential tools for governments, employers, and workers to establish such practices and to provide for maximum safety at work. In 2003 the ILO adopted an global strategy to improve occupational safety and health which included the introduction of a preventive safety and health culture, the promotion and development of relevant instruments, and technical assistance.

Selected relevant ILO instruments

The ILO has adopted more than 40 standards specifically dealing with occupational safety and health, as well as over 40 Codes of Practice. Nearly half of ILO instruments deal directly or indirectly with occupational safety and health issues.

Fundamental principles of occupational safety and health

  • Occupational Safety and Health Convention, 1981 (No. 155) - [ratifications] and its Protocol of 2002 - [ratifications]
    The convention provides for the adoption of a coherent national occupational safety and health policy, as well as action to be taken by governments and within enterprises to promote occupational safety and health and to improve working conditions. This policy shall be developed by taking into consideration national conditions and practice. The Protocol calls for the establishment and the periodic review of requirements and procedures for the recording and notification of occupational accidents and diseases, and for the publication of related annual statistics.
  • Occupational Health Services Convention, 1985 (No. 161) - [ratifications]
    This convention provides for the establishment of enterprise-level occupational health services which are entrusted with essentially preventive functions and which are responsible for advising the employer, the workers and their representatives in the enterprise on maintaining a safe and healthy working environment.
  • Promotional Framework for Occupational Safety and Health Convention, 2006 (No. 187) - [ratifications]
    This Convention aims at promoting a preventative safety and health culture and progressively achieving a safe and healthy working environment. It requires ratifying States to develop, in consultation with the most representative organizations of employers and workers, a national policy, national system, and national programme on occupational safety and health. The national policy shall be developed in accordance with the principles of Article 4 of the Occupational Safety and Health Convention, 1981 (No. 155), and the national systems and programmes shall be developed taking into account the principles set out in relevant ILO instruments. A list of relevant instruments is contained in the Annex to the Promotional Framework for Occupational Safety and Health Recommendation, 2006 (No. 197). National systems shall provide the infrastructure for implementing national policy and programmes on occupational safety and health, such as laws and regulations, authorities or bodies, compliance mechanisms including systems of inspection, and arrangements at the level of the undertaking. National programmes shall include time-bound measures to promote occupational safety and health, enabling a measuring of progress.
  • Further relevant instruments

Health and safety in particular branches of economic activity

Protection against specific risks

  • Radiation Protection Convention, 1960 (No. 115) - [ratifications]
    The objective of the Convention is to set out basic requirements with a view to protect workers against the risks associated with exposure to ionising radiations. Protective measures to be taken include the limitation of workers' exposure to ionising radiations to the lowest practicable level following the technical knowledge available at the time, avoiding any unnecessary exposure, as well as the monitoring of the workplace and of the workers' health. The Convention further refers to requirements with regard to emergency situations that may arise.
  • Occupational Cancer Convention, 1974 (No. 139) - [ratifications]
    This instrument aims at the establishment of a mechanism for the creation of a policy to prevent the risks of occupational cancer caused by exposure, generally over a prolonged period, to chemical and physical agents of various types present in the workplace. For this purpose, states are obliged to determine periodically carcinogenic substances and agents to which occupational exposure shall be prohibited or regulated, to make every effort to replace these substances and agents by non- or less carcinogenic ones, to prescribe protective and supervisory measures as well as to prescribe the necessary medical examinations of workers exposed.
  • Working Environment (Air Pollution, Noise and Vibration) Convention, 1977 (No. 148) - [ratifications]
    The convention provides that, as far as possible, the working environment shall be kept free from any hazards due to air pollution, noise or vibration. To achieve this, technical measures shall be applied to enterprises or processes, and where this is not possible, supplementary measures regarding the organization of work shall be taken instead.
  • Asbestos Convention, 1986 (No. 162) - [ratifications]
    Aims at preventing the harmful effects of exposure to asbestos on the health of workers by indicating reasonable and practicable methods and techniques of reducing occupational exposure to asbestos to a minimum. With a view to achieving this objective, the convention enumerates various detailed measures, which are based essentially on the prevention and control of health hazards due to occupational exposure to asbestos, and the protection of workers against these hazards.
  • Chemicals Convention, 1990 (No. 170) - [ratifications]
    The Convention provides for the adoption and implementation of a coherent policy on safety in the use of chemicals at work, which includes the production, the handling, the storage, and the transport of chemicals as well as the disposal and treatment of waste chemicals, the release of chemicals resulting from work activities, and the maintenance, repair and cleaning of equipment and containers of chemicals. In addition, it allocates specific responsibilities to suppliers and exporting states.

Codes of Practice

ILO Codes of Practice set out practical guidelines for public authorities, employers, workers, enterprises, and specialized occupational safety and health protection bodies (such as enterprise safety committees). They are not legally binding instruments and are not intended to replace the provisions of national laws or regulations, or accepted standards. Codes of Practice provide guidance on safety and health at work in certain economic sectors (e.g. construction, opencast mines, coal mines, iron and steel industries, non-ferrous metals industries, agriculture, shipbuilding and ship repairing, forestry), on protecting workers against certain hazards (e.g. radiation, lasers, visual display units, chemicals, asbestos, airborne substances), and on certain safety and health measures (e.g. occupational safety and health management systems; ethical guidelines for workers' health surveillance; recording and notification of occupational accidents and diseases; protection of workers' personal data; safety, health and working conditions in the transfer of technology to developing countries).

Further information

  • Building a preventative safety and health culture: A guide to the Occupational Safety and Health Convention, 1981 (No. 155), its 2002 Protocol and the Promotional Framework for Occupational Safety and Health Convention, 2006 (No. 187) (2013)
  • Plan of action (2010-2016) to achieve widespread ratification and effective implementation of the occupational safety and health instruments (Convention No. 155, its 2002 Protocol and Convention No. 187)
  • General Survey on Occupational Safety and Health (2009) - [pdf]
  • ILO standards-related activities in the area of occupational safety and health: An in-depth study for discussion with a view to the elaboration of a plan of action for such activities (Report VI, International Labour Conference, 91st Session, 2003) - [pdf]
  • General Survey on Safety in the Working Environment (1987) ) - [pdf]
  • Labour Administration, Labour Inspection and Occupational Safety and Health Branch (LABADMIN/OSH)
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