28 April, World Day for Safety and Health at Work - Two million work deaths a year: A preventable tragedy

Work kills more people than wars – some 6,000 a day. And almost 270 million accidents are recorded each year, of which 350,000 are fatal. Many of these could be prevented, the International Labour Office believes. 20 years after one of the worst industrial accidents on record – the Bhopal disaster, which killed 2,500 people and injured 200,000 in the space of a few hours, later some 20 000 have died – the situation has scarcely improved.

Article | 28 April 2004

GENEVA – On 10 April 2004, at least 44 miners died in a mine explosion in Russia. The day before, electric shocks killed 12 workers and injured three others on a building site in China. On 13 April 2004, an Irish study revealed that hundreds of thousands of workers suffer from stress, at a total cost of four million working days lost in 2003.

In January 2004, an explosion at a liquefied natural gas complex in Algeria killed 27 workers. In November 2003, 10 workers died following the collapse of a gangway leading to the Queen Mary 2, under construction in Saint-Nazaire, France. And as work nears completion at the venue of the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, some 154 work accidents have already occurred, killing 12 building workers.

These are but a few examples of work-related injuries, sickness and, all too often, death. The ILO estimates that more than 2 million people die from work-related causes every year: some 750,000 women and 1,500,000 men, reflecting the fact that men often do more dangerous work than women. ILO experts also point out that the statistics in any case underestimate the real situation, given the lack of information and reporting in many countries.

Of these occupational deaths, almost 350,000 occur during work accidents while the rest are due to work-related illnesses. More than 400,000 deaths are caused by exposure to chemicals. Such exposure is also responsible for 35 million of the160 million cases of work-related diseases recorded worldwide. Sadly, an estimated 22,000 children of school age die at work every year.

At the initiative of the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU), the trade union movement has made corporate responsibility one of the themes of its International Commemoration Day for Dead and Injured Workers on 28 April. The ILO is supporting this event, calling upon its tripartite constituents to observe a World Day for Safety and Health at Work on that day.

According to the ILO, 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.

Many countries have brought in legislation to tackle the most obviously negligent attitudes to work safety. But the penalties are often derisory. As Jukka Takala, Director of the ILO InFocus Programme on SafeWork emphasizes, "If you let companies with poor health and safety records survive, these will set a bad example and other companies might be tempted to relax their own safety efforts".

And yet, worker health and safety is a good thing for companies. In the US alone, work accidents cost employers tens of billions of dollars. "No successful company can in the long run show high productivity levels with poor safety", Jukka Takala insists. Expenditure due to occupational illnesses and work accidents adds up to 4 per cent of the GNP of all the countries on the planet. That is more than a thousand billion dollars, or 20 times more than the public assistance provided to the developing countries annually.

Prevention is the key

Yet the ILO is convinced that many disasters and everyday hazardous practices at work are preventable. Priority must be given to overcoming them and ILO standards can help to achieve this. Almost half of the 185 Conventions adopted by the ILO have a bearing on health and safety issues.

Ratification of these standards, i.e. countries' formal commitment to respect them, is uneven. Some have been widely ratified, such as Convention No. 81 on labour inspection (130 ratifications). Others, however, have produced less encouraging results. For instance, Convention No. 155 on worker safety and health has garnered just 42 ratifications.

In addition to these standards, all the available studies confirm that the existence of social dialogue within a workplace boosts health and safety. Where unions are fully recognized and there is a workplace health and safety committee (with equal representation of management and the unions), the serious accident rate may be halved in relation to workplaces where unions are not recognized and no such committee is in place.

"A safety culture must be nurtured through partnership and dialogue – governments, employers and workers within a framework of rights, responsibilities and duties, finding common ground, creating safe and healthy work places", says ILO Director-General Juan Somavia. "I strongly believe that this is one of the most fertile areas for reaching consensus in the world of work."