Thousands of workers die on the job every day and the number is rising
where employers and regulators skimp on safety measures in the mistaken belief
that lower occupational health costs will boost companies' competitiveness,
the lead United Nations labor agency said Monday.
Some 2.2 million workers die from job-related accidents and illness every year,
the International Labor Organization (ILO) said in a new report. It urged international
bodies, national and local governments, and individual companies to make sure
fewer workers died or fell ill on the job.
''Occupational safety and health is vital to the dignity of work. Still, every
day, on average, some 5,000 or more women and men around the world lose their
lives because of work-related accidents and illness,'' said Juan Somavia, the
The total death toll, based on figures from 2001, marked a 10 percent
increase since 1998. The largest increases occurred in Latin America (33 percent)
and China (22 percent), partly reflecting improved reporting of worker deaths.
Even so, the report faulted developing countries for low-balling their body
India, for example, reported 222 fatal work-related accidents while the Czech
Republic, with a working population about one percent the size of India's, reported
231. The ILO pegged the real number of fatal accidents in India at 40,000.
China, where construction and low-cost production have powered economic growth,
reported 12,554 fatal accidents in 2001. However, the ILO said the actual number
of worker deaths in the world's most populous country likely was closer to 90,000.
The death toll continues to rise in industrializing countries even as it falls
in industrialized ones, the agency said.
To a large extent, this is because a jump in work-related injuries and deaths
accompanies industrialization, which draws increasing numbers of people into
dangerous construction, infrastructure, and factory jobs.
By contrast, wealthy countries' work forces increasingly are employed in the
relatively safe service sector as hazardous jobs in steel mills, mining, and
other heavy industry dwindle, the ILO said.
The vast majority of work-related deaths are from diseases including cancer
and respiratory illnesses, both caused by exposure to hazardous substances,
the ILO said. Infectious diseases also rank among the leading killers.
Hazardous materials kill some 440,000 workers every year, with exposure to
asbestos alone claiming an estimated 100,000 workers' lives annually, the ILO
said. Asbestos, a fibrous mineral used in construction and prized as a fire
retardant, is known to cause diseases and lung cancer even many years after
The ILO blamed ''rapid development and strong competitive pressures of globalization''
for the upsurge in worker deaths, particularly in Asia.
It sought to rebut the argument that poor countries and companies would lose
their competitiveness--derived mainly from their ability to offer inexpensive
products by keeping down unit costs--were they to ramp up safety and health
measures, including occupational safety and health inspections.
''Selecting a low-safety, low-health, and low-income survival strategy may
not lead to high competitiveness or sustainability,'' the report said.
''Inspectors should not be considered a nuisance or threats to business,''
it added. ''Countries with the best inspection systems are also the most competitive
Yet, most workers lack legal protection from unsafe work conditions, cannot
claim compensation for injuries or illnesses suffered on the job, and have no
access to workplace health services, the agency said.
''The sad truth is that in some parts of the world, many workers will probably
die for lack of an adequate safety culture,'' Jukka Takala, director of the
ILO's safe work program, said in a statement. ''This is a heavy price to pay
for uncontrolled development. We must act swiftly to reverse these trends.''
While men account for 80 percent of all work-related deaths, the report
said, some 22,000 children die at work each year.
Among signs of progress, the report said 28 countries had signed on to the
ILO's Convention on Asbestos, and China has set up a workplace safety department
and undertaken a national assessment of what is needed to prevent worker deaths
The agency released its report at an international occupational health and
safety conference in Orlando, Florida.