As many as 1.9 million people died from work-related diseases and injuries in 2016, according to the first joint estimates from the World Health Organization (WHO) and International Labour Organization (ILO). The majority of work-related deaths were due to respiratory and cardiovascular disease.
Non-communicable diseases accounted for 81% of these deaths. The greatest causes of deaths were chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (450,000 deaths), stroke (400,000 deaths), and ischaemic heart disease (350,000 deaths). Occupational injuries caused 19% of the deaths (360,000 deaths).
These are the latest estimates of the work-related Burden of Disease and Injury, 2000-2016: Global Monitoring Report. The report considers 19 occupational risk factors, including exposure to long working hours and workplace exposure to air pollution, asthmagens, carcinogens, ergonomic risk factors, and noise.
Long working hours could kill
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 literally being killed by their jobs,” said 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 can have a catastrophic impact on household incomes, the report warned. Globally, work-related deaths per population fell by 14% between 2000 and 2016. This may reflect improvements in workplace health and safety, the report said. However, deaths from heart disease and stroke associated with exposure to long working hours rose by 41% and 19% respectively.
“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.”
Actual toll is likely larger
A disproportionately large number of work-related deaths occur in workers in South-East Asia and the Western Pacific, among males and among people aged over 54 years. The report notes that the total work-related burden of disease is likely substantially larger, as health loss from several other occupational risk factors must still be quantified in the future. The effects of the pandemic is likely to add another dimension to this burden in future estimates.
“Ensuring health and safety among workers is a shared responsibility of the health and labour sector, as is leaving no workers behind in this regard,” said Maria Neira, director of the department of Environment, Climate Change and Health at WHO. “In the spirit of the UN Sustainable Development goals, health and labour must work together, hand in hand, to ensure that this large disease burden is eliminated.”