"One of the biggest challenges we face is the relative under-emphasis of occupational health in relation to safety," asserted Jukka Takala in an interview to discuss the results of the ILO's report on global workplace injuries and illnesses. Takala is the director of ILO's SafeWork program and played an important part in putting together the data.
Every 3 years, ILO issues a report on global occupational injuries and illnesses. The most recent figures, released at last month's World Congress of Safety in Orlando Fla., go through the year 2001.
The ILO figures for the annual death toll of work-related illnesses are roughly double estimates by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), according to Takala. The ILO estimates that in 2001, 6,643 U.S. workers died in fatal accidents, 728 more than the official BLS number.
For the entire world, ILO estimates that a total of 351,251 workers died from occupational injuries in 2001, while approximately 1.8 million lost their lives because of work-related diseases.
Estimating work-related diseases is difficult, Takala said, because of long latency periods and the problem of determining whether the disease resulted from exposures outside the workplace. BLS stopped performing estimates of fatal occupational illnesses several years ago for these reasons, according to a BLS official.
One reason the ILO estimate for fatal illnesses is higher than that of BLS is that ILO uses asbestos mortality rates from the United Kingdom, which are five times higher than American numbers. Takala said he believes Britain's numbers are more accurate.
Takala explained that the ILO arrived at its fatal illness numbers by using "attributable fractions" for both age and gender. An attributable fraction is the fraction of a disease that would not have occurred had the work exposure not been present.
While estimating the numbers of work-related diseases is not easy, Takala expressed increased confidence with the most recent numbers.
"We have much better data now than we did before," he said.