Almost 2 million people die from work each year

Nobody should get sick or die from doing their job. Yet every year, 1.9 million people die from exposure to risk factors in the workplace

The 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGS) aim “to ensure healthy lives and promote well-being” and “decent work” for all people, whatever their economic or social status.

Achieving these goals requires the comprehensive, accurate and transparent monitoring of workers’ health and safety. Quantifying the impact of each occupational risk factor is essential for mitigating it.

The World Health Organization (WHO) and the International Labour Organization (ILO) have established the WHO/ILO Joint Estimates of the Work-related Burden of Disease and Injury (WHO/ ILO Joint Estimates) to outline the level of preventable premature deaths due to exposure to work-related health risks.

The study found that most work-related deaths were due to respiratory and cardiovascular disease. Many work-related deaths occurred in male workers aged over 54 in South-East Asia and the Western Pacific.

Non-communicable diseases accounted for 81 per cent of the deaths. The most significant causes of death are chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (450,000), stroke (400,000), and ischaemic heart disease (350,000). Occupational injuries caused 19 per cent of deaths (360,000).

The study considers 19 occupational risk factors, including exposure to long working hours and workplace exposure to air pollution, carcinogens, ergonomic risk factors, and noise. The key risk was exposure to long working hours – linked to approximately 750,000 deaths. Workplace exposure to air pollution (particulate matter, gases and fumes) was responsible for 450,000 deaths.

“It’s shocking to see so many people being killed by their jobs,” said Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General. “Our report is a wake-up call to countries and businesses to improve and protect the health and safety of workers by honouring their commitments to provide universal coverage of occupational health and safety services.”

Work-related diseases and injuries strain health systems, reduce productivity, and have a catastrophic impact on household incomes, the report warns.

“These estimates provide important information on the work-related burden of disease, and this information can help to shape policies and practices to create healthier and safer workplaces,” said Guy Ryder, ILO Director-General.

“Governments, employers and workers can all take actions to reduce exposure to risk factors at the workplace. Risk factors can also be reduced or eliminated through changes in work patterns and systems. As a last resort, personal protective equipment can also help to protect workers whose jobs mean they cannot avoid exposure.”

The report notes that the work-related burden of disease is substantially larger, as health loss from other occupational risk factors must be quantified. The effects of the Covid-19 pandemic will add another dimension to this burden in future estimates.

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