12. Health and Safety at the Workplace

Sustainable Development

Decent work

Economy Social Environment Employment Protection Rights Dialogue
Relevant SDG Targets

3.9, 8.8, 16.6
Relevant Policy Outcomes
2, 6, 7, 8, 10

On this page: DWA-SDG Relationship | Cross-cutting policy drivers | Partnerships | ILO Capacity | Resources

Based on ILO estimates, 2.3 million workers die every year from work-related injuries and diseases. An additional 160 million workers suffer from non-fatal work-related diseases and 313 million  from non-fatal injuries per year. The economic costs to companies and economies is significant. The ILO estimates that more than 4 per cent of the world's annual GDP is lost as a consequence of work-related injuries and diseases.

Work-related deaths, injuries and diseases take a particularly heavy toll in developing nations, where large numbers of people are engaged in hazardous activities including agriculture, construction, logging, fishing and mining. Death and disability resulting from hazardous work is a major cause of poverty, affecting entire families. The poorest and least protected, often women, children and migrants, are among the most affected.

The agricultural sector employs an estimated 1.3 billion workers worldwide, which is half of the world's labour force. In terms of fatalities, injuries and work-related ill-health, it is one of the three most hazardous sectors of activity (along with construction and mining). Even when technological developments have mitigated the drudgery of agricultural work, there are new risks related to the use of sophisticated machinery and intensive use of chemicals and pesticides. Wider community exposure to pesticides may occur in the form of contamination of foodstuffs, the diversion of chemically treated seeds for human consumption, contamination of groundwater, etc. (46).

The conditions under which most informal workers operate are precarious, unhealthy and unsafe. Many of the micro enterprises in which they work have ramshackle structures and lack sanitary facilities or portable water. For many workers, and particularly for women, their home is their workplace and they frequently live and work in unsafe and healthy conditions – not only for themselves but also for their family members.

The health of workers is a major determinant of productivity. Health problems can also lead to discrimination against workers (for example, those with HIV/AIDS or TB) or result in major expenditures for governments and enterprises. A vicious circle of poor health, reduced working capacity, low productivity and shortened life expectancy is a typical outcome in the absence of social interventions addressing the underlying problems of irregular and low quality employment, low pay and the lack of social protection. International organizations can help to promote health and safety at work – and the most effective measures tend to be those that actively involve workers’ and employers’ organizations.

It is for these reasons that a programme called “Global Action for Prevention on Occupational Safety and Health” (OSH-GAP) has been selected by the ILO as one of the Office’s five flagship programmes. OSH-GAP, which became operational in 2016, shall develop and implement sustainable and scalable actions, informed by current knowledge, as well as research and best practices. With the engagement and contribution of strategic partners, the programme aims to create the “necessary conditions” to improve OSH based on the assessment of country conditions and priorities. Projects will seek to make actions scalable and sustainable. The necessary conditions that will be the focus of ILO actions include the following:
  • legal, regulatory and adjudicative frameworks that address and integrate OSH, including core OSH laws and technical regulations;
  • enforcement and compliance with OSH in workplaces, including public, private and non-governmental systems that operate independently or in concert;
  • employer and worker competencies that are necessary to achieve and sustain OSH at global, national and enterprise levels;
  • social dialogue that supports OSH;
  • public and private financial resources for investment in OSH;
  • occupational health services including public and private health services;
  • employment injury insurance programmes that support prevention of OSH fatalities, injuries and illnesses;
  • OSH professionals, institutions and networks;
  • OSH indicators and implementation of effective methodologies for OSH data collection; and
  • demand for the safety and health of workers and workplaces.
To fill significant gaps in resources needed to implement activities, the flagship programme will develop strategies, guidance and tools that specifically support:
  • legal, regulatory and adjudicative frameworks and enforcement and compliance systems that address and integrate OSH, with a special focus on national OSH legislation, technical regulations, inspectorates, and adjudicative bodies;
  • strategies and systems for SMEs that assist governments, workers and employers to reduce work related fatalities, injuries and diseases at workplace level in SMEs;
  • OSH indicators and innovative methodologies for data collection and analysis that drive preventive action in OSH;
  • stronger international and regional networks among OSH institutions and organizations to increase their capability to inform OSH priorities and to support the acquisition and application of OSH knowledge by governments, workers, employers and OSH professionals; and
  • increased in demand for the safety and health of workers at work is generated, in particular through social dialogue, education and training.
These resources are added to existing strategies, guidance and tools already developed by the ILO to support its work to improve the conditions that are necessary for the prevention of occupational accidents and diseases. Among these resources is a toolbox of resources on establishing effective national data collection systems for recording occupational fatalities, injuries and diseases.

The programme targets the improvement of occupational safety and health in small and medium sized enterprises, encompassing formal and informal enterprises and workers. In addition, the programme concentrates on the construction and agriculture sectors and on workers working under conditions which make them more vulnerable to injury and disease.

ILO’s work on OSH is grounded in more than forty conventions and recommendations specifically dealing with occupational safety and health, as well as over forty codes of practice. The most important and up-to-date of these are: the Occupational Safety and Health Convention, 1981 (No. 155), the Occupational Health Services Convention, 1985 (No. 161); the Promotional Framework for Occupational Safety and Health Convention, 2006 (No. 187); and the Occupational Safety and Health Recommendation, 2006 (No. 197). Other ILO instruments relevant to OSH are listed here (under “selected standards”, left hand side).

DWA-SDG Relationship

The area of occupational safety and health is related to the “health” SDG, namely its target 3.9: “by 2030 substantially reduce the number of deaths and illnesses from hazardous chemicals and air, water, and soil pollution and contamination”; the “jobs” SDG, namely its target 8.8: “protect labour rights and promote safe and secure working environments of all workers, including migrant workers, particularly women migrants, and those in precarious employment”; and the “institutions” SDG, namely its target 16.6: “develop effective, accountable and transparent institutions at all levels”. The wording of these three targets demonstrates that OSH touches on all three dimensions of the Sustainable Development Agenda. Addressing OSH gaps can turn the vicious circle described above into a virtuous circle of healthier lives and increased productivity which maximizes decent work and sustainable development outcomes.

ILO’s work on OSH is the subject of a dedicated policy outcome. This outcome is closely connected with (and dependent on) the development of legislation in line with international labour standards (PO 2); the upgrading and formalization of enterprises and workers in the lower tiers of global supply chains (PO 6); better workplace compliance through increased capacity of labour administration and labour inspection (PO 7); the provision of policy advice and cooperation focusing on unacceptable forms of work (PO 8), and the cooperation with workers’ and employers’ organizations (PO 10). These many linkages show that OSH is both a very specific technical area as well as a cross-cutting concern for the entire organization. It is therefore natural that the OSH-GAP flagship programmes has developed strong synergies with two other ILO flagships, namely Better Work and IPEC+.

Cross-cutting policy drivers

The very strong linkage between OSH and ILS has already been highlighted above. ILO’s OSH-related Conventions and Recommendations have guided and influenced relevant national legislation throughout the world.

Workers’ and employers’ organization, as well as social dialogue mechanisms such as effective mechanisms for workplace cooperation, are crucial for the development, implementation and monitoring of national OSH laws and regulations, policies, systems. They are also essential in capacity building of national OSH institutions and competencies of employers and workers to achieve and sustain OSH at global, national and enterprise levels.

Gender and non-discrimination issues, including maternity protection, equal pay, sexual harassment and violence at work are related to OSH, and can be addressed through OSH related legislation at the national level, and through standards governing global supply chains.

Several OSH-related standards and codes of practices are linked to pollution and environmentally dangerous substances, and can therefore play a supporting role in greening national economies.


The ILO leverages partnerships with other UN agencies, including the World Health Organization (WHO), international financial institutions, such as the World Bank Group, the OECD, multinational enterprises, private compliance initiatives and other actors in order to strengthen policy coherence and mobilize support for safe work and workplace compliance in global supply chains. Partnerships and collaboration with business and trade union research networks and other research centres and associations will be deepened to expand the knowledge base in this area. ILO work on OSH is also supported by the G7-initiated Vision Zero Fund initiative (VZF), which aims to prevent work-related deaths, injuries and diseases in global supply chains. Specifically, as part of the implementation strategy of the OSH GAP flagship programme, the ILO will be engaging strategic partners drawn from the above agencies and organizations with demonstrated depth of expertise and experience in the development of one or more of the necessary conditions to improve occupational safety and health. Strategic partners will be paired with national counterparts and will be asked to commit their experience and expertise in the assessment, development and implementation of projects in countries under the flagship programme.

ILO Capacity

The ILO’s OSH work is spearheaded by the Labour Administration, Labour Inspection and Occupational Safety and Health Branch which is represented through technical specialists on OSH, labour inspection and labour administration both at ILO headquarters in Geneva and in several Decent Work Technical Teams. In addition, the ILO can rely on development cooperation experts working for OSH-related projects, and on different technical units and specialists who promote OSH through the promotion of labour standards, the formalization of the informal economy, the fight against unacceptable forms of work, or through workers’ and employers’ organizations.


The Office maintains a comprehensive knowledge base on occupational safety and health, which can be found on the LABADMIN/OSH Branch webpages. The Office has also developed LEGOSH database of national OSH laws and regulations, as well as numerous OSH country profiles. Additional material can be accessed through the relevant pages of ILO’s Labordoc, and through the OSH-related web pages of the ITC Turin.  

46. ILO. Agriculture: a hazardous work. ILO Occupational Safety and Health. [Online] 01 December 2016. /safework/areasofwork/hazardous-work/WCMS_110188/lang--en/index.htm.