Deaths from work related illness are rising, show latest figures

BMJ 2011; 343 doi: (Published 15 September 2011) Cite this as: BMJ 2011;343:d5863
  1. John Zarocostas
  1. 1Geneva

Although the number of fatal work related accidents worldwide continues to fall, more people are dying from work related diseases, says a report by the International Labour Organization.

From 2003 to 2008 deaths from accidents in the workplace fell by 10% (from 358 000 to 321 000), while the number of people who died from work related diseases rose by nearly 4% (from 1.95 million to 2.02 million).

The fall in deaths from workplace accidents is a result of stronger policies on health and safety at work introduced by many governments, including bringing legislation in line with international standards, says the report, together with better inspection services and increased prevention and awareness of occupational risks among employers and workers.

However, “vast and poor working practices persist.” High proportions of workers, including migrants, temporary workers, and child labourers, work in hazardous settings in the informal economy and “are often exposed to risks to their safety and health without adequate protection.”

In sectors such as mining, construction, agriculture, and hazardous industrial manufacturing, workers face continual and increasing exposure to mineral and chemical dusts.

The report says that in the past two decades many new chemicals have been introduced into industries, “many of which have not been adequately tested.” Despite more international regulations on the management of chemicals, the use of new substances that may be allergenic, sensitising, carcinogenic, or mutagenic is of major concern.

Of the illnesses and injuries contracted at work in 2008, cancers accounted for 29% of the total deaths, communicable diseases (such as tuberculosis, malaria, and flu) 25%, circulatory diseases 21%, occupational injuries 14%, respiratory diseases 7%, and digestive and genitourinary diseases 1% each.

An International Labour Organization spokesperson told the BMJ that it is difficult to estimate the prevalence of work related fatal diseases because long term and continuous exposure to hazardous substances is “more difficult to control as there often is a latency period.”

A substantial rise in the number of workers since 2003 also partly explains why deaths have increased, officials say. The latest figures on deaths from diseases contracted through the workplace include nearly one million deaths (910 000) from exposure to hazardous substances (up from 651 000 in 2003).

The report estimates that a fifth (220 377) of the million deaths among men from lung cancers and mesothelioma in 2008 were attributable to exposure to hazardous substances. The proportion among women was 5.5% (23 026 of 418 653 deaths).

Recent research has shown that every day 850 000 workers are absent because of an injury sustained at work, the report says. In 2008 some 317 million workers sustained a work related injury that resulted in absence from work of four days or more (down from 337 million in 2003).

The report says that psychosocial factors such as stress, alcohol and drug misuse, harassment and violence at work, and HIV and AIDS have a marked effect on workers’ health.

The International Labour Organization warns that the global economic recession could “hold back or reverse some of the recent advances made . . . There is evidence that some of the recent advances in terms of promoting OSH [occupational safety and health] are being lost as enterprises struggle to remain productive.”


Cite this as: BMJ 2011;343:d5863


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