Health and work activities are interdependent. Although it is generally agreed that work helps to keep an individual in good health as long as it does not overtax his physical and mental capacities, various factors inherent in work can have harmful effects on workers' health: the type of work done, the physical and mental effort involved, the materials and products used, the nature of the working environment, the conditions in which the work is performed and how it is organized.
- Diagnostic and exposure criteria for occupational diseases - Guidance notes for diagnosis and prevention of the diseases in the ILO List of Occupational Diseases (revised 2010)
The protection of the worker against sickness, disease, and injury arising out of employment is one of the main objectives of the ILO. Over the years, the concern for the protection of the worker has evolved to assume a broader coverage of the fundamental objectives embodied in the ILO Constitution and the Declaration of Philadelphia. The 1984 International Labour Conference Resolution concerning the improvement of the working conditions and environment laid down the following principles:
Work should take place in a safe and healthy working environment; conditions of work should be consistent with workers' well-being and human dignity; work should offer real possibilities for personal achievement, self-fulfilment, and service to society.
The ILO develops international labour standards in the field of safety and health at work to guide governments in setting national laws and regulations and enforcing their application at the workplace. Employers and workers and their organizations also have the framework to improve working conditions and occupational safety and health.
The ILO Convention on Occupational Safety and Health, 1981 (No.155) defines health in relation to work as not merely the absence of disease or infirmity, it also includes the physical and mental elements affecting health that are directly related to safety and hygiene at work.
Since 1950, the ILO and the WHO have a common definition of occupational health. This definition was adopted by the Joint ILO/WHO Committee on Occupational Health at its first session (1950) and revised at its twelfth session (1995):
Occupational health should aim at: the promotion and maintenance of the highest degree of physical, mental, and social well-being of workers in all occupations; the prevention amongst workers of departures from health caused by their working conditions; the protection of workers in their employment from risks resulting from factors adverse to health; the placing and maintenance of the worker in an occupational environment adapted to his physiological and psychological capabilities and, to summarize, the adaptation of work to man and of each man to his job.
The focus in occupational health is on the three different objectives: (i) the maintenance and promotion of workers' health and working capacity; (ii) the improvement of working environment and work to become conducive to safety and health; and (iii) the development of work organizations and working cultures in a direction which supports health and safety at work and in doing so also promotes positive social climate and smooth operation and may enhance the productivity of the undertakings. The concept of working culture is intended in this context to mean a reflection of the essential value systems adopted by the undertaking concerned. Such a culture is reflected in practice in the managerial systems, personnel policy, principles for participation, training policies, and quality management of the undertaking.
Occupational health activities cover the whole spectrum of activities undertaken by employers, workers and their organizations, designers and architects, manufacturers and suppliers, occupational health professionals and practitioners, legislators and parliamentarians, labour and health inspectors, work analysts and work organization specialists, standardization organizations, universities and research institutions to protect workers’ health and to promote safety and health at work.
There are more than 35 up-to-date ILO instruments directly relevant to the health and safety of workers at work. The general principles and policies on occupational health are essentially contained in the following three ILO Conventions and their accompanying Recommendations:
- The Convention on Occupational Safety and Health (No.155) and its Recommendation (No. 164) provide for the adoption of a national occupational safety and health policy and describe the actions needed at national and enterprise levels to promote occupational safety and health and to improve the working environment
- The Occupational Health Services Convention (No. 161) and its Recommendation (No. 171) provide for the establishment of occupational health services which will contribute to the implementation of the occupational safety and health policy and will perform their functions at the enterprise level
- The Promotional Framework for Occupational Safety and Health Convention (No. 187) and its Recommendation (No. 197) provide for a national policy, national system, and national programme to promote continuous improvement of safety and health at work to prevent occupational injuries, diseases, and deaths and to take active steps towards achieving progressively a safe and healthy working environment by taking into account the principles set out in the ILO relevant instruments.
At its 110th Session in June 2022, the International Labour Conference decided to amend paragraph 2 of the ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work (1998) to include “a safe and healthy working environment” as a fundamental principle and right at work, and to make consequential amendments to the ILO Declaration on Social Justice for a Fair Globalization (2008) and the Global Jobs Pact (2009).
The International Labour Conference also decided to designate the Occupational Safety and Health Convention, 1981 (No. 155) and the Promotional Framework for Occupational Safety and Health Convention, 2006 (No. 187) as fundamental Conventions, in line with its decision to recognize the right to a safe and healthy working environment as one of the fundamental principles and rights at work. ILO Member States, regardless of their level of economic development, commit to respect and promote these principles and rights, whether or not they have ratified the relevant fundamental Conventions.