Occupational Health and Safety Worldwide

Occupational safety is the science of anticipating, recognizing, evaluating and controlling health hazards at the workplace with the objective to protect worker health and well being and safeguard the community at large.

What is occupational safety and health?

According to the International Occupational Hygiene Association, occupational safety is the science of anticipating, recognizing, evaluating and controlling health hazards at the workplace with the objective to protect worker health and wellbeing and safeguard the community at large.

As stated by ILO DG in 2009, occupational safety & health is human right and that decent work eventually is safe work.

Why is Occupational safety and health important?

Workers' safety and health are not only the concerns of workers and their families but also of enterprises and even national and global economies whose productivity and competitiveness depend on keeping workplaces safe.

According to ILO, around 160 million people suffer from occupational diseases and 2 million people die every year as a result of occupational accidents and work-related diseases and injuries. Similarly, around 337 million fatal and non-fatal accidents occur each year. Still the figures are quite underestimated as nearly 50% of workplace injuries are never reported, especially in developing countries. Moreover, under-reporting exists because of the failure to recognize the work-related origins of diseases. ILO has further estimated that nearly 5% of world GDP is lost due to occupational diseases and accidents. The annual cost of workplace accidents and diseases has been estimated as US$5 billion.

Hazards in the workplace create both human and economic costs. The recent blaze in a factory in the garment factory in Pakistan where more than 200 workers were burnt to death reminds us about the importance of having a system at workplace which protects workers from such tragedies and accidents.

What are relevant ILO Conventions on the subject?

OSH is a cross-cutting issue and is addressed in the largest number of ILO standards, either directly or indirectly.

ILO has adopted nearly 40 standards (conventions and recommendations) dealing specifically with OSH.There are many other ILO activities (andresultantly labour standards) that are related to OSH indirectly and these include child and bonded labor activities; labour inspection, informal economy, gender mainstreaming and work in the specific sectors of economy.  The most important standards include:

  1. Occupational safety and Health Convention, 1981 (No. 155) and its Protocol of 2002
  2. Occupational Health Services Convention, 1985 (No. 161)
  3. Promotional Framework for Occupational Safety and Health Convention, 2006 (No. 187)

Convention 155 requires each ratifying member country to formulate, implement and periodically review a coherent national policy to prevent accidents and injury to the workers' health by minimizing workplace hazards. Similarly, it requires governments to take some actions at the national level and others at enterprise level. At the national level, states have to take necessary measures to provide guidance to workers and employer (training on usage of different machinery and how to avoid hazards) and maintain an adequate and appropriate system of inspection to make sure that different labor regulations, especially those related to workplace safety, are complied with. A vibrant labour inspection system is necessary condition for maintaining a safe workplace. One of the many factors behind workplace accidents is that labour inspection systems in developing countries are not fully equipped with required manpower and not allowed to perform their task objectively and independently.

According to the 2002 Protocol, states, in consultation with the employer and worker organizations, have to adopt procedures for recording, notification and publishing of occupational diseases, accidents, and other dangerous occurrences like commuting accidents and suspected case of occupational disease.

Countries, where OSH system is developed, usually publish these reports annually. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) publishes these figures annually for USA while European Agency for Safety and Health at Work publishes similar figures for the European Union. Similar figures are available on ILO Database "LABORSTA" under the topic of Occupational injuries.  For more information, please follow these links.

Convention 161 requires establishment of occupational health services at the enterprise level with preventive functions and responsible for advising employer, workers and their representatives in the enterprise on: requirements for establishing and maintaining a safe and healthy work environment and adaptation of work to the physical and mental capabilities of workers.

Convention 187 requires states to develop a national policy on OSH (as required under Convention 155) and promote a preventive safety and health culture where the right to safe and healthy working environment is respected by all; where all the tripartite actors fully participate in securing a safe and healthy working environment and where principle of prevention prevails.

What are employers' responsibilities to make a workplace safe and healthy?

At the enterprise level, employers have to ensure that the workplace including all machinery, processes, chemicals and substances is safe and without risk to workers' health. They are also required to train workers in the use of machinery & equipment and provide adequate personal protective equipment and clothing to workers free of cost. Employers are also required to ensure adequate supervision of work and take all measures to eliminate excessive mental and physical fatigue. Employers have also to ensure that work organization, hours of work and rest breaks, does not have negative impact on workers' health. 

What are workers' rights and responsibilities in this regard?

In order to make a workplace safe and secure, employer and employees have to join hands. Workers and workers' representatives, in the course of performing their work, must cooperate with the employer to meet obligations placed on him.

Workers and their representatives must be trained to maintain workplace safety and be informed, by the employer, about measures taken to secure safety and health at workplace.

What is the key to workplace safety?

According to Heinrich, an American industrial safety pioneer, 95% of workplace accidents are caused by "unsafe acts". While Heinrichemphasizes "main-failure" as a cause of accidents, he also simultaneous focuses on "mechanical and physical hazards" to be controlled by employers.

The key to workplace safety is involvement of workers and their representatives in the process. If workers are just "informed or consulted" about safety and health policy at workplace, it won't bring desired results.

What is an occupational accident and disease?

According to ILO Protocol to the Convention 155 (2002), occupational disease is "any disease contracted as a result of an exposure to risk factors arising from work activity. ILO Convention 121 considers a disease as occupational disease which arises out of the exposure to some substance or dangerous conditions in process, trades or occupations. Two conditions must be met before a disease can be considered an occupational disease. These are:

- Existence of a causal relationship between exposure in a specific working environment/ activity and a disease; and

- Presence of disease in a group of people exposed to substance or dangerous conditions at a higher rate than in normal population

Occupational accidents are similarly defined in the Protocol as:

  1. Accidents, regardless of their cause, sustained during working hours at or near the place of work or at any place where the worker would not have been except for his employment;
  2. accidents sustained within reasonable periods before and after working hours in connection with transporting, cleaning, preparing, securing, conserving, storing and packing work tools or clothes;
  3. accidents sustained while on the direct way between the place of work and:
    1.  the employee's principal or secondary residence; or
    2. the place where the employee usually takes his meals; or
    3. the place where he usually receives his remuneration

A long list of occupational diseases has been developed by the ILO under List of Occupational Diseases Recommendation, 2002 (No. 194). Member states are required to update their list of diseases by referring to it. Occupational diseases have been classified as:

         i.            Diseases caused by chemical agents

       ii.            Diseases caused by physical agents

     iii.            Diseases caused by biological agents

     iv.            Infectious/parasiticdiseases

       v.            Respiratory diseases

     vi.            Skin diseases

   vii.            Musculoskeletal disorders

 viii.            Mental and behavioral disorders

     ix.            Occupational cancer

 For more information see R194 - List of Occupational Diseases Recommendation, 2002 (No. 194)

How a safe workplace can be created?

A WHO report mentions four areas in which actions can be taken towards a safe and healthy workplace. These include:

         i.            physical environment

       ii.            psychosocial environment

     iii.            personal health resources

     iv.            enterprise community involvement

However, we focus here on the first two actions. According to this report, physical hazards must be identified at a workplace and controlled through a number of processes. These hazards include chemical, biological, ergonomic, mechanical, energy and mobile hazards. Similarly important is the psychosocial environment which includes daily working culture of an organization, values, beliefs which affect mental and physical well-being of workers. These are also referred to as "stressors". These include poor work organization (working overtime, time pressure, poor job design and internal communications); bad management style (where workers are controlled and never consulted about work options, no work-life balance allowed) and organizational culture (where no policies exist to deal with harassment (including sexual) and bullying at workplace, discrimination of all sorts). Until organizations take prompt action on these issues, workplace can't be made safe and healthy.

What are associated costs with occupational accidents and diseases?

According to an ILO report, there are both economic and non-economic (human) as well as internal and external costs of occupational accidents. According to this report, a huge share of such costs is paid by the workers and their families as well as society

External costs, born by workers and society, include:

a)      injured worker’s lost wages which are not replaced through workers’ compensation system;

b)     injured worker’s medical expenses not compensated through workers’ compensation or other employer paidinsurance system;

c)      Lost household production by the victim;

d)     Public medical subsidies applied to health services received by the injured worker;and

e)      a productive worker is no longer available to society due to premature death (if not captured by lost

There are also some costs that are borne by the employer which include:

a)      Interruption in production immediately following the accident;

b)     lower workers morale;

c)      Recruitment and training costs for replacement workers;

d)     Reduced quality of recruitment pool;

e)      Reduction in product quality following the accident; and

f)       Reduced productivity of injured workers on light duty


  • Occupational Safety and Health related ILO Conventions
  • List of occupational diseases (revised 2010), ILO, 2010
  • The Economics of Safety, Health, and Well-Being at Work: An Overview by Peter Dorman, ILO, 2000
  • Healthy workplaces: a model for action: for employers, workers, policymakers and practitioners, World Health Organization, 2010
  • Global estimates of occupational accidents, Pa¨iviHa¨ma¨la¨inen, JukkaTakala, KaijaLeenaSaarela, Safety Science, 2006