ITUC/Hazards 28 April fundamental factfile |
Why must safety be fundamental? Because our jobs are killing us

The Covid-19 pandemic didn’t cause a workplace occupational health crisis; it exposed it. Millions are suffering and dying each year as a price for doing their job. Covid-19 added to this toll.


2.78 million people each year died from work-related illness and injury, even before the pandemic [ILO] – over 7,600 deaths every day, over 300 every hour, and over five every minute. One work-related death every 12 seconds. Some 374 million non-fatal work-related injuries occur each year, resulting in more than 4 days of absences from work [ILO].

Worldwide, just one in seven work-related deaths [14 per cent] result from injuries; work-related cancer [27 per cent] and circulatory diseases [28 per cent] – frequently uncompensated and uncounted in official figures – together account for over half of work-related deaths [EU-OSHA]. Millions of workers are robbed of sometimes decades of health, income and quality of life by work-related diseases, a 2020 analysis concluding: “Occupational exposures continue to cause an important health burden worldwide, justifying the need for ongoing prevention and control initiatives.” [Occupational and Environmental Medicine, 2020].

Every year over one million people die as a result of exposure to hazardous workplace substances, with the International Labour Organisation estimating 666,000 of these lives are claimed by occupational cancers [ILO/WSHI]. The occupational disease toll linked to chemicals could increase dramatically - the industry is set to double in size by 2030 [GCOII], and quadruple by 2060 [OECD]. In human terms, the cost of hazardous workplace exposures is already one worker death every 30 seconds.

The economic burden of poor occupational safety and health practices is estimated at 3.94 per cent of global Gross Domestic Product each year [ILO], equating to a cost of over US$3 trillion (US$3,180 billion/€2680 billion) [SOM, 2021].

Jobs in industries from health and social care, to food production and retail, to transport, cleaning, security, construction and manufacturing have seen large Covid-19 outbreaks. These frontline jobs can come with high rates of coronavirus infection and several times the expected death rate [Occupational & Environmental Medicine, December 2020]. Workplace cases of Covid-19 are routinely misattributed to ‘community transmission’ [Hazards, December 2020].

Over 17,000 health and care workers have died from Covid-19, a March 2021 analysis by Amnesty International, Public Services International (PSI) and UNI Global Union reported. Worldwide, one health worker dies from Covid-19 every 30 minutes [PSI]. A February 2021 report by UNI Global Union’s UNICARE sector warned social care staff working in multiple settings, on temporary agency contracts, and in facilities with lower staff-to-bed ratios had higher rates of infection and death [UNI].

The food workers ensuring food supply during the Covid-19 pandemic were being treated “as if they were expendable,” a December 2020 report to the UN Human Rights Council stated. It noted: “When food workers get sick, the world goes hungry” [OHCHR]. Exploitative, unsafe working conditions led to large outbreaks in thousands of food factories worldwide causing hundreds of deaths [IUF].

Covid-19 was not a surprise – unions had warned for decades for the need “to prepare for emerging threats.” Covid came on the heels of earlier coronavirus outbreaks in 2003 (SARS) [ILO] and 2012 (MERS), where preventive strategies were identified and subsequently ignored [Hazards, September 2020]. It’s not just coronavirus. In recent years workers have faced major work-related infection threats from other viral conditions including Avian influenza (Bird flu), Swine flu, Ebola and West Nile virus; tick-borne diseases like Monkey fever and Lyme disease; bacterial conditions like MRSA, Anthrax, Brucellosis, Leptospirosis (Weil’s disease), Legionnaire’s disease and Q-fever; blood borne diseases like HIV and Hepatitis B and C; and mould or fungal spore related conditions like Histoplasmosis and Extrinsic Allergic Alveolitis [Hazards, September 2020].

At least 30 States exported hazardous substances that had been banned locally because of health and environmental reasons to Latin America, Africa and Asia, a 2020 report from UN human rights experts found. The direction of toxic export is from rich to poor nations [OHCHR]. The UN experts said wealthier nations often create double standards that allow the trade and use of prohibited substances in parts of the world where regulations are less stringent, externalising the health and environmental impacts on the most vulnerable.

Asbestos, the most notorious industrial killer all time, still kills over a quarter of a million people each year [Comparative Analysis of the Burden of Injury and Illness at Work in Selected Countries and Regions, ICOH]. Asbestos use is banned in fewer than a third of countries. Global production is still at over 1 million tonnes each year. [US Geological Survey. Mineral Commodity Summaries. Asbestos, January 2021]. Asbestos will have a deadly legacy for decades. In Britain, where it has been banned for over 20 years, related deaths from lung cancer and mesothelioma are still at 5,000 people a year. In Australia, which banned asbestos in 2003, there are still over 4,000 asbestos-related deaths each year. Asia is now the key export market.

A new generation of workers is dying from new exposures to old hazards – silica is robbing the breath of workers making engineered stone kitchen tops; mercury and lead have poisoned workers in electronics manufacture. Other developments, like the introduction of nanomaterials and other novel products and technologies like AI without adequate risk assessments and long-term testing, could create a ‘new asbestos’ for the next generation.

There has been a dramatic rise in pesticide poisonings on farms worldwide. Researchers estimate there are now about 385 million cases of acute pesticide poisonings each year, up from an estimated 25 million cases in 1990. An estimated 44 per cent of farmers are poisoned by pesticides every year. The annual fatality toll now stands at 11,000 deaths [BMC Public Health, December 2020]. In 2020, a UN Environment Programme report warned counterfeit and contraband pesticides are flooding developed and developing countries alike, with environmental, health and social consequences that are “far from trivial” [UNEP].


It’s fundamental: Making work safety an ILO Fundamental Right at Work, Hazards, January-March 2021.
ITUC/Hazards 28 April news, events and resources:
Save lives at work: International Workers’ Memorial Day - 28 April, ITUC brief, 4 February 2021.
World’s leading experts call for occupational health and safety to be made a fundamental right, ITUC brief, 22 March 2021.
Occupational health and safety: Progress at the ILO, ITUC brief, 30 March 2021.

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