Work sends 2m labourers to early grave

Work turned into a death sentence for more than 1.9 million people, according to the first joint estimates from the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the International Labour Organisation (ILO) released this month.

A majority succumbed to work-related diseases and injuries in 2016.

According to the WHO/ILO joint study on the work-related burden of disease and injury between 2000 and 2016, dubbed Global Monitoring Report, the majority of work-related deaths were due to respiratory and cardiovascular diseases.

A disproportionately large number of work-related deaths occur in workers in South-East Asia and the Western Pacific, and males and people aged over 54 years.

The total work-related burden of disease is likely to be substantially larger, the report notes, as health loss from several other occupational risk factors, are set to be quantified in the future. “The effects of the Covid-19 pandemic will add another dimension to this burden to be captured in future estimates,” read the report in part.

Non-communicable diseases accounted for 81 per cent of the 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 per cent of deaths (360,000 deaths),” noted WHO/ILO in the report.

The study considered 19 occupational risk factors, including exposure to long working hours and workplace exposure to air pollution, asthmagens, carcinogens, ergonomic risk factors, and noise.

Air pollution

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 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 warns.

Dr Onyimbo Kerama, Lead Consultant and Executive Director at Motire Occupational Health and Safety Solutions said in a recent interview with The Standard that one of the main causes of stress is work-rest relationships.

“The work-rest balance is one of those things that we should have a big discussion about. Health topics are important to the front as stress in the workplace leads to serious consequences among staffers,” he said. Among the effects of burnout is depression, said Kerama, which are sometimes seen in workers becoming irritable.

He shared an interrelationship chart that shows that lack of rest and sleep leads to economic stress, mental stress, addiction, violence, promiscuity and thus diseases such as HIV and AIDs, and poor nutrition and physical activity.

“By not taking leave, one will have a lot of imbalances with self and might incur serious mental diseases. People get burnouts and the quality of work could fall from highs of 80 and 90 per cent to between 10 and 20 per cent,” Kerama said.

Globally, work-related deaths per population fell by 14 per cent between 2000 and 2016, the WHO/ILO report indicated. This may reflect improvements in workplace health and safety, the report says.

However, deaths from heart disease and stroke associated with exposure to long working hours rose by 41 and 19 per cent respectively. This reflects an increasing trend in this relatively new and psychosocial occupational risk factor.

This first WHO/ILO joint global monitoring report will enable policymakers to track work-related health loss at country, regional and global levels. This allows for more focused scoping, planning, costing, implementation and evaluation of appropriate interventions to improve workers’ population health and health equity.

The report shows that more action is needed to ensure healthier, safer, more resilient and more socially just workplaces, with a central role played by workplace health promotion and occupational health services.

Each risk factor has a unique set of preventive actions outlined in the monitoring report to guide governments, in consultation with employers and workers.

For example, the prevention of exposure to long working hours requires agreement on healthy maximum limits on working time. To reduce workplace exposure to air pollution, dust control, ventilation, and personal protective equipment is recommended.

“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. As a last resort, personal protective equipment can also help to protect workers whose jobs mean they cannot avoid exposure.”

“These almost two million premature deaths are preventable. Action needs to be taken based on the research available to target the evolving nature of work-related health threats,” said Maria Neira, Director, Department of Environment, Climate Change and Health at WHO.

“Ensuring health and safety among workers is a shared responsibility of the health and labour sector, as is leaving no workers behind. 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.”

Vera Paquete-Perdigao, Director of the Governance and Tripartism Department at ILO said international labour standards and WHO/ILO tools and guidelines give a solid basis to implement strong, effective and sustainable occupational safety and health systems at different levels.

“Following them should help to significantly reduce these deaths and disabilities,” said Vera.

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