ILO: Work hazards kill millions, cost billions

Workers, employers and governments are marking the World Day for Safety and Health at Work. In a new report, the ILO says the annual cost to the global economy is a staggering 1.25 thousand billion (trillion). This report outlines the occupational safety and health crisis and explains how it can be dealt with.

GENEVA (ILO Online) - On the job accidents and illnesses annually take some 2 million lives and cost the global economy an estimated $1.25 trillion ($1,250,000 million US dollars), according to the International Labour Office (ILO). In a new report, "Safety Culture at Work", the ILO says this toll of accidental death and disease can be stopped if workers, employers and governments respect international safety standards.

"Injury and disease are not 'all in a day's work'", says ILO Director-General Juan Somavia. "Fatalities, accidents and illness at work can be prevented. We must promote a new 'safety culture' in the workplace - wherever work is done - backed by appropriate national policies and programmes to make workplaces safer and healthier for us all."

The new report reviews current knowledge about the toll of workplace illness, injury and death, which costs some $1.25 trillion ($1,250,000 million US dollars) in annual losses in global gross domestic product (GDP). The ILO said its estimate was based on a calculation that accidents and work-related illnesses cost some 4 per cent of annual GDP.

That is a worldwide figure, based on the latest ILO estimates. And it is just part of the immense suffering caused by workplace hazards. Some 160 million people on this planet have work-related diseases. Meanwhile, the number of work accidents, fatal and non-fatal, is put at 270 million a year.

There are also big regional variations, the ILO says: "In parts of the developing world, fatality rates soar to four times those in the safest industrialized countries".

For the first time, the ILO has put a cash figure on this seldom-mentioned global problem. The calculations are set out in a new booklet (see note 1) published on 28 April, the World Day for Safety and Health at Work. The ILO wants to add its own particular strength to that event - tripartism. In other words, cooperation between governments, employers and workers, meeting as equals.

Apart from compensation payments, costs borne by society due in part to work-related accidents and diseases include:

  • Lower competitiveness: One of the most authoritative rankings of countries by competitiveness is published each year by the International Institute for Management Development (IMD) in Lausanne. The ILO plotted selected IMD competitiveness rankings in 2002 against the ILO's own occupational health and safety rankings. The results show a strong link between high safety and high competitiveness. The same exercise using the competitiveness rankings issued by the World Economic Forum yielded broadly similar results.
  • Early retirements: In high-income countries, about 40 per cent of all retirements before the statutory age are caused by disability. On average, this shortens working life by about five years, and it is equivalent to 14 per cent of the lifetime working capacity of the employed labour force.
  • Absenteeism: An average of 5 per cent of the work force is absent from work every day. This may vary from 2 per cent to 10 per cent, depending on the sector, type of work and management culture.
  • Unemployment: On average, one-third of unemployed people have an impairment of working capacity that is not great enough for them to be entitled to a personal disability pension or compensation but which seriously reduces their re-employability.
  • Poorer households: An occupational injury to one worker can seriously reduce the income of a household. In the USA, for example, workers who receive a partial disability due to a workplace injury lose about 40 per cent of their income over five years. In many cases, other family members may have to give up jobs in order to care for an injured worker, thus further reducing household income.
The impacts of poor health and safety on a company's bottom line may, the ILO says, include higher absenteeism and more downtime - leading to loss of productivity, underutilization of expensive production plants and a possible decrease in economies of scale, low morale - leading to loss of productivity, loss of skilled and experienced employees, plus the loss of the company's investment in their training, difficulty in recruiting high-quality employees and payment of compensation and/or damages to injured or sick workers or to the dependents of workers killed. In addition, companies suffer associated legal costs, payment of danger bonuses, higher insurance premiums, material damage to equipment and premises due to incidents and accidents, fines, disputes with trade unions, public authorities and/or local residents, loss of image, loss of custom - particularly in the case of subcontractors to larger companies, and in high-profile cases, the complete or partial loss of the "licence to operate".

Certainly, the direct costs to business are very high. In the EU, for instance, 150 million workdays are lost each year due to work accidents, and the insurance costs to be borne by industry add up to 20 billion. And American businesses spend US$170.9 billion a year on costs associated with occupational injuries and illnesses.

For businesses wishing to make a cost-benefit analysis of safety and health protection, the new ILO booklet lists a number of practical guides.

Global Safety Culture

The world's biggest workplace killers are cancer (an estimated 32 per cent of all work-related deaths), circulatory diseases (23 per cent), accidents (19 per cent) and communicable diseases (17 per cent). Clearly, most of these deaths are preventable. So the ILO calls for the rapid development of a worldwide safety culture at work. In particular, it emphasizes that:

  • Enterprise management and commitment have a key role. Companies that have an occupational safety and health management system (OSH-MS) set up according to the ILO Guidelines, ILO-OSH 2001, have better safety and productivity records.
  • The stronger the union, the safer the workplace. Workers' involvement in planning and running the company OSH-MS - and freedom of association - are of vital importance here.
  • Much of the action on safety and health must be local, but much of the framework must be global.
On all these counts, the ILO's SafeWork programme is well-placed to influence the global agenda. Health and safety figure prominently among the worldwide labour standards set by the ILO. And the campaign for "decent work" worldwide is at the heart of the ILO agenda. Obviously, decent jobs must also be safe jobs.

The ILO's own members certainly place a high priority on occupational health and safety issues. A detailed ILO survey on the subject in 2002 brought responses from 102 member States. Replies from 47 representative employers' and workers' organizations were also received, either transmitted by the governments or sent in separately. The survey results will be included in a new in-depth report to the June 2003 session of the ILO's plenary, the International Labour Conference. The strongest theme to emerge from the report and the survey is the crucial importance of promoting ILO standards and other instruments, such as Codes of Practice and Guidelines.

The ILO is pursuing two major strategies to improve the implementation of its standards:

  • An integrated approach, streamlining all its means of action, in order to achieve more effective occupational safety and health implementation by member states.
  • Use of voluntary measures and, in particular, wide use of the ILO's new Guidelines on Occupational Safety and Health Management Systems, ILO-OSH 2001

1 - Safety Culture at Work. Safety in numbers - Pointers for a global safety culture at work, International Labour Office, Geneva, 2003. ISBN 92-2-113741-4. Web site: