Occupational Safety and Health

100 years of making work safer and healthier

Occupational safety and health (OSH) has been a core element of the ILO’s work since it was founded in 1919. Technical specialist, Manal Azzi, charts the major OSH milestones of the ILO’s first hundred years and looks ahead to the challenges of the future.

Comment | 21 May 2019
By Manal Azzi, OSH Technical Specialist, ILO

Manal Azzi
Deaths and accidents at work exact not just an economic cost but an immeasurable human price, affecting hundreds of millions of people. So, it’s not surprising that Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) has been a priority of the International Labour Organization (ILO) since its foundation.

In 1919, when the ILO’s Constitution was being negotiated, OSH was specifically included in the preamble. “An improvement of those [working] conditions is urgently required; as, for example…the protection of the worker against sickness, disease and injury arising out of his employment”.

After the Constitution’s adoption, concrete action followed swiftly. At the first session of the International Labour Conference (ILC), three of the six recommendations adopted related to OSH; the Anthrax Prevention Recommendation, 1919 (No. 3); the Lead Poisoning (Women and Children) Recommendation, 1919 (No. 4); and the White Phosphorus Recommendation, 1919 (No. 6).

Early ILO instruments tended to regulate single issues (such as exposure to hazardous materials or dangerous machinery) or sectors of industrial activity (including mining, the maritime industry, construction and manufacturing). The focus was on prescriptive rules and the role of governments in protecting workers.

There are now more than 40 international instruments dealing with OSH. A particular strength of these instruments comes from the ILO’s unique tripartite structure, which means that representatives of the governments, employers and workers of member States all play an equal role in drawing them up. This helps to ensure that ILO member States also address key social policy issues that relate to OSH, such as sickness insurance and pensions.

A shipyard worker, Batam, Indonesia
Another major advance came in 1930, with the creation of the ILO Encyclopaedia. Thanks in part to the contributions of literally thousands of experts, it helped to establish the multidisciplinary nature of OSH work.

After the Second World War interest began to spread into newer disciplines associated with safety design and engineering. New substances and chemicals created a demand for more research and countermeasures. New global institutions with an interest in health issues emerged, including the United Nations (UN) and the World Health Organization (WHO). In 1950 the ILO and WHO convened their first Joint Committee on Occupational Health. The overlap between the remits of the two agencies subsequently led the ILO to move away from the strictly medical aspects of OSH and towards prevention, combining matters of safety and health into one programme.

During the 1950’s, in response to the process of decolonization and an increase in the number of developing countries joining ILO, a programme of technical assistance was introduced. Work also began on the development of voluntary OSH Codes of Practice.

In the 1980’s, following the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, attitudes towards OSH began to shift towards the development of a ‘safety culture’, focused on risk assessment, prevention, mitigation and including workers’ mental health as well as their physical well-being.

The adoption of the ILO’s Global Strategy on Occupational Safety and Health, in 2003, reflected this change, placing less emphasis on prescription and more on prevention. 2003 also brought the first celebration of the annual World Day for Safety and Health at Work, on April 28, an acknowledgement of growing public interest in the issue.

Still, every year around 2.8 million workers die from occupational accidents and work-related diseases and more than 370 million others are injured. Hence, OSH work will remain as important to the ILO in its second century as it was in its first.

Technology, demographics, sustainable development, changes in work organization, psychosocial risks, work-related stress and non-communicable diseases are among the emerging challenges. These trends also bring opportunities for improvement - for example by applying tech to risk assessment and dangerous jobs, and re-shaping working time to create a better work-life balance.

To be effective in the ILO’s second century we will need a broader, multidisciplinary response, encompassing public health, a culture of prevention and risk anticipation. But one factor that won’t change is that our OSH work will continue to be built – as are all ILO’s policies – on the human-centred approach outlined in the ILO’s founding Constitution.