Chemical safety

Workers around the world face a global health crisis due to occupational exposure to toxic chemicals

The ILO publishes a new report highlighting the state of the evidence for chemical exposures and resulting health impacts in the world of work

News | 17 May 2021

Every year more than 1 billion workers are exposed to hazardous substances, including pollutants, dusts, vapours and fumes in their working environments. Many of these workers lose their life following such exposures, succumbing to fatal diseases, cancers and poisonings, or from fatal injuries following fires or explosions.

We must also consider the additional burden that workers and their families face from non-fatal injuries resulting in disability, debilitating chronic diseases, and other health sequela, that unfortunately in many cases remain invisible.

All of these deaths, injuries and illnesses are entirely preventable.

Although the health effects of some occupational chemical exposures are well established, it is likely that the long-term health impacts of certain chemicals will only become evident in years to come. What is clear however, is that the utilisation of hazardous chemicals in consumer products and industrial processes will continue to increase in the coming years, leading to an even higher burden of disease and adverse consequences for the environment.

To shed light on this global health crisis, the International Labour Organization (ILO) has conducted a global review of chemical exposures and health impacts in the world of work, in order to provide a state of the evidence towards policy efforts.

The review highlights the most important trends for chemicals and the world of work, identifies ten priority chemicals of concern and presents the evidence for exposure, health effects, regional trends, gender considerations and priority actions for each of these substances. A chapter on priority action areas provides an essential overview of the way forward at different policy levels.

Of all of the findings of the report, perhaps the most important take away is that we can no longer afford to be complacent in our global mismanagement of chemicals, and a new approach is urgently needed to protect the billions of workers exposed on a daily basis.

Effective and evidence-based systems for the sound management of chemicals must be implemented at both the national and workplace level as a matter of urgency in order to protect workers, their families, and wider communities.