A new report from the United Nations calls for “urgent and vigorous” action to address the issue of work-related diseases, which kill approximately two million people around the world each year. About 160 million more are afflicted by non-fatal occupational illnesses.

Affects workers, families, communities

In a statement marking the report’s release issued in time for the World Day for Safety and Health at Work, the International Labour Organization (ILO) Director-General, Guy Ryder, warned that occupational diseases have a profound impact on the productivity of companies and the lives of workers and their families.

Work-related illnesses kill six times as many people as on-the-job accidents.

“The ultimate cost of occupational disease is human life. It impoverishes workers and their families and may undermine whole communities when they lose their most productive workers,” he said, adding that the productivity of enterprises ends up reduced while the financial burden on the state increases as the cost of health care rises.

According to the report, entitled The Prevention of Occupational Diseases, work-related illnesses kill six times as many people as on-the-job accidents but tend to attract less attention. Out of an estimated 2.34 million annual occupational deaths, the vast majority – approximately 2 million people – are disease related.

The report notes that due to technological and social changes, as well as difficult global economic conditions, existing health hazards remain a persistent threat to workers the world over while new health risks have also emerged. In particular, well-documented occupational diseases such as pneumoconioses and asbestos-related illnesses remain widespread. Meanwhile, new diseases such as mental and musculoskeletal disorders are on the rise.

Occupational disease cost: $2.8 trillion a year

“Where social protection is weak or absent, many workers as well as their families, lack the care and support they need,” Mr. Ryder continued. “A fundamental step is to recognize the framework provided by the ILO’s international labour standards for effective preventative action and promoting their ratification and implementation.”

Along with the serious impact on personal health, occupational diseases also carry an enormous cost, resulting in an annual four per cent loss in global gross domestic product or an estimated $2.8 trillion, the UN agency reported.

“Significantly reducing the incidence of occupational disease is not simple, it may not be easy and it will not happen overnight, but progress is certainly feasible,” Mr. Ryder concluded, as he stressed the need in developing an effective prevention strategy.

“Let us, in our respective areas of responsibility, establish a road map and most critically, act and persevere so that, together, we succeed in turning the tide on the epidemic and make good progress on this dimension of decent work.”