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XVIIth World Congress on Occupational Safety and Health Decent work is safe work

ORLANDO (ILO Online) - All too often lives are shattered unnecessarily because of poor working conditions and inadequate safety systems. According to a new ILO report, the number of work-related deaths per year has risen to 2.2 million, a figure that is probably vastly under-reported. ILO Online spoke with Jukka Takala, Director of the ILO SafeWork Programme at the XVIIth World Congress on Occupational Safety and Health which is held in Orlando, Florida, from 18-22 September.

Article | 27 September 2005

ILO Online: How many people die from work-related accidents and diseases worldwide?

Jukka Takala:
The ILO estimates that at least 5,000 people die every day as a result of work-related accidents or illnesses. What is more, the numbers are rising. According to the latest ILO estimates for accidents and diseases, globally about 2.2 million work-related deaths occur annually, representing a 10 per cent increase on the estimate given in our report to the XVIth World Congress on Safety and Health at Work in Vienna, 2002.

ILO Online: Is this an accurate indicator of the toll of death and disease at the workplace, or do you believe it is only the tip of the iceberg?

Jukka Takala:
Almost certainly, it is just the tip of the iceberg. We believe that this figure is, in fact, still under-estimated due to poor reporting practices and coverage of workplace safety and health, especially in the rapidly developing countries of Asia. What's more, the number of persons who are dying is a small fraction of the toll of accidents and disease. We estimate that almost 270 million non-fatal accidents causing more than three days absence from work occur each year, as well as 160 million work-related cases of illness.

ILO Online: How did you get these numbers?

Jukka Takala:
We get fairly good reports of accidents from industrialized countries but from most of the world, we don't get proper information. In particular, in rapidly developing countries we have to estimate the number of accidents and diseases. In our present report, about 90 per cent of accidents in industrialized countries are covered, but if we go to developing countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America we sometimes only get a tiny fraction of the real incidence and we have to rely on our own estimates.

ILO Online: What are the reasons for underreporting of occupational accidents and diseases?

Jukka Takala:
There are often no reliable systems at the company level. If there is no reason for businesses to report accidents and diseases why should they? If there are economic incentives, for example when employers can claim back from the insurance system - partially or fully - the compensation paid, and if companies realize that they lose money if they do not report, you can obtain better reporting and, based on that, have better prevention activities, and correct the poor working conditions that cause accidents and diseases.

ILO Online: Can accidents and diseases at work be avoided?

Jukka Takala:
Practically all accidents can be eliminated by a set of known measures. Many companies and some governments have already adopted zero accident targets. If all ILO member States used the best accident prevention strategies and practices that are already in place and easily available, some 300,000 deaths (out of total 360,000) and 200 million accidents (out of 270 million) could be prevented, not to mention the savings in compensation payments and other economic benefits.

ILO Online: What are the economic benefits of prevention?

Jukka Takala:
Short-sighted companies will quickly hire another worker when someone had an accident and continue with that. They do not see that avoiding incidences that are closing down the production for longer periods of time also makes sense economically.

The European Union has recently estimated that the costs of occupational accidents in the year 2000 was 55 billion euro a year and believes that this is likely to be an underestimate. It does not cover costs of work-related diseases that cause 1.6 to 2.2 times more days of temporary incapacity than accidents, while there are 2.4 times more people reporting long-standing health problems at work. The ILO estimates that 4 per cent of the global GDP is lost each year due to work-related accidents and diseases. It has been also demonstrated that better safety and health and high level of competitiveness go hand in hand.

ILO Online: An often-heard argument is that poor countries and poor companies cannot afford safety and health measures…

Jukka Takala:
There is no evidence that any country or company in the long run would have benefited from a low level of safety and health. On the contrary, recent studies by the World Economic Forum and the Lausanne Institute of Management IMD demonstrate that the most competitive countries are also the safest. Selecting a low-safety, low-health and low-income survival strategy may not lead to high competitiveness or sustainability.

ILO Online: What about the loss in human capital?

Jukka Takala:
A large number of unemployed workers have impaired working capacity, even though their impairment may not be enough for them to be entitled to a personal disability pension or compensation. However, the loss of working ability can be of such magnitude that it can seriously reduce his or her re-employability. A construction worker whose back does not tolerate carrying normal loads, for example, or a painter who has asthmatic or allergic reactions caused by exposure to solvent-based paints is difficult to employ. A recent study on ill-health retirement demonstrated that only one third of construction workers reach a normal retirement age while two thirds were placed on ill-health disability pension.

ILO Online: Do you think these problems get enough attention?

Jukka Takala:
The media refer a lot to the about 500,000 people dying in war every year, but the more than 2 million people dying at work are hardly noticed - not to mention the other victims who suffer from the consequences of occupational accidents and long-term diseases. The World Congress is an occasion to highlight the importance of the issue: this is not only a meeting for experts. We also want the media and decision-makers to put these problems much higher on the political agenda than in the past.

Further information on the ILO SafeWork Programme and the ILO report to the World Congress can be found at The link to the XVIIth World Congress on Safety and Health at Work is: