ILO: Prevention Is Key to Tackling Occupational Illness

An Article by the Sandy Smith

The International Labour Organization is calling for an “urgent and vigorous” global campaign to tackle the growing number of work-related diseases, which claim an estimated 2 million lives per year.

“The ultimate cost of occupational disease is human life. It impoverishes workers and their families and may undermine whole communities when they lose their most productive workers,” said the ILO Director-General Guy Ryder in a statement issued for the World Day for Safety and Health at Work.

“Meanwhile, the productivity of enterprises is reduced and the financial burden on the State increases as the cost of health care rises. Where social protection is weak or absent, many workers as well as their families, lack the care and support they need,” he continued.

Ryder said prevention is the key to tackling the burden of occupational diseases, and is more effective and less costly than treatment and rehabilitation. He said the ILO was calling for a “paradigm of prevention with comprehensive and coherent action targeting occupational diseases, not only injuries.” He added: “A fundamental step is to recognize the framework provided by the ILO’s international labor standards for effective preventative action and promoting their ratification and implementation.”

“The ILO is well placed to lead a concerted and holistic effort to address OSH challenges by providing integrated web-based information that is practical and easily accessible to workplace actors, prevention and treatment centers, employers’ and workers’ organizations, enforcing authorities and labor inspectorates,” said Brent Wilton, the head of the International Organization of Employers (IOE). “We have an opportunity to ensure that countries are better equipped to avert the risk of facing the same OSH challenges by learning from shared experiences.”

The report, titled “The Prevention of Occupational Diseases,” was issued for the World Day for Safety and Health at Work. ILO said that despite the fact that occupational diseases kill six times as many people, accidents attract greater attention. Of the estimated 2.34 million annual work-related deaths, the vast majority – approximately 2.02 million – are due to work-related diseases. This represents a daily average of 5,500 deaths. The ILO also estimates that 160 million cases of non-fatal work-related diseases occur annually.

“Our societies must not accept that workers can lose their health to make a living,” said Sharan Burrow, general secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC. “And we must not forget that occupational diseases put a huge burden on families and the public purse – a burden that is preventable.”

Technological and social changes, along with global economic conditions, are aggravating existing health hazards and creating new risks. Well-known occupational diseases, such as pneumoconioses and asbestos-related diseases, remain widespread, while relatively new occupational diseases, such as mental and musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs), are on the rise.

Occupational diseases carry an enormous cost – for workers and their families, as well as for economic and social development. The ILO estimates that occupational accidents and diseases result in an annual 4 percent loss in global gross domestic product (GDP), or about US $2.8 trillion, in direct and indirect costs of injuries and diseases.

Good quality data is of key importance, providing the basis for an effective prevention strategy. Yet, globally, more than half of all countries do not provide statistics for occupational diseases. Only a few countries collect sex-disaggregated data. This makes it difficult not only to identify specific types of occupational injuries and diseases that affect men and women, but also hinders the development of effective preventive measures for all.

”Significantly reducing the incidence of occupational disease is not simple, it may not be easy and it will not happen overnight, but progress is certainly feasible. So let us, in our respective areas of responsibility, set clear OSH goals, establish a road map and most critically, act and persevere so that, together, we succeed in turning the tide on the epidemic and make good progress on this dimension of decent work,” Ryder said.