Report: Workplace Fatalities Are Increasing in Developing World

Approximately 2.2 million workers died throughout the world because workplace injuries and illnesses, according to a report released today by the International Labor Organization (ILO). The figures in the report represent a small but significant increase in the numbers of work-related diseases and accidents since ILO's previous study, released in 2002.

Jukka Takala, director of Safework for ILO, and several other speakers discussed the results of the report today (Sept. 19) at the opening plenary session of the 17th World Congress on Safety and Health at Work, held in Orlando, Fla.

The ILO report reveals that while accidents and illnesses are decreasing in the developed world, both are increasing in the developing world. In his presentation, Takala blamed a number of factors for the rising toll of workplace injuries and illnesses in developing countries.

"The coverage of the reporting systems, coverage of prevention systems, coverage of the compensation systems, coverage of even basic occupational health services, is simply not there," said Takala. "A tiny fraction of the workforce of the world is covered by these prevention methods, and this is a big problem."

Takala then discussed the elements of ILO's strategy to improve global workplace safety, including the development of new instruments and related guidance documents and technical assistance.

Frank White, vice president of ORC Worldwide, spoke next, observing that the ILO data convincingly show that both the numbers and the rates of work-related deaths from injuries have risen in Asia and Latin America.

"This record is not acceptable," White asserted.

White cited three primary factors that, according to ILO, contribute to the lack of progress:

  • Lack of a preventive safety and health culture;
  • Poor management systems;
  • Poor supervision and enforcement by government authorities.

The ORC vice president then presented a vision of what he said was possible, a vision based, "not on theory, but based on real progress and real data."

According to White, injury and illness rates for ORC member companies operating in Asia and Latin America are at or below the figures in developed nations. He credited the success of these companies to their focus on the first two elements of the three elements cited by ILO: a preventive safety and health culture and management systems.

"Globalization is unfair," commented Nilton Freitas, from Brazil's Cabinet of the Ministry of Labor. Freitas called for the international recognition of a right to a safe and healthy workplace.

A representative from the European Union agreed with White that multinational companies operating in developing nations have a significant role to play in protecting workers. But he also contended that, "you can't just put your faith in the multinationals." The EU nations have adopted a policy that obliges them to support the development of government institutions in developing countries that will protect workers' safety and health.

In an interview after the plenary session, Takala expanded on what has emerged as a major theme of the first World Congress to be held in the United States.

"We have two different worlds: In developed countries accidents are going down, while in developing countries, particularly rapidly developing ones, accidents are going up," said Takala.

Roughly half of the improving safety picture in developed nations is the result of better prevention strategies, according to Takala. He said the other half of the decrease in injuries and illnesses in richer countries is due to the replacement of hazardous work by safer service sector jobs.

"We are exporting hazards," concluded Takala.

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