By Mauricio Torres-Tovar
Emerging voice from Colombia
Master in Public Health student (ITM)

“Many lose their job and many lose, while working, their life; every fifteen seconds a worker dies, killed by so called occupational accidents
Eduardo Galeano, Uruguayan writer

Work is a fundamental societal value. Societies can develop through the work of numerous citizens, and decent jobs allow individuals and families to improve their living conditions and lead meaningful lives. Unfortunately, working conditions do not always contribute in the same way.

Indeed, working conditions are a social determinant of health. Working conditions can affect workers’ health and life in a positive or negative way.

According to International Labour Organization (ILO) statistics, every 15 seconds a worker dies from a work-related accident or disease; every 15 seconds 160 workers are involved in an occupational accident; every day 6,300 people die as a result of occupational accidents or work-related diseases, which amounts to more than 2.3 million deaths per year. Over 337 million accidents occur on the workplace annually. This global work situation has a high human cost and an economic burden estimated at 4 % of world GDP each year.

Moreover, this situation only seems to be getting worse as a result of current changes in the world of work whereby employment flexibility and informal work are increasingly common. The situation also increases the inequity between urban and rural workers, male and female workers, workers of developed and developing countries, formal and informal workers and resident and migrant workers.

In 1996, the Canadian trade unions began to celebrate the International Commemoration Day for Dead and Injured Workers (on April 28), a day organized in memory of victims of occupational accidents and diseases. Since 2003, the ILO has been involved in April 28, and turned it into a global event. This year the World Day for Safety and Health at Work focuses on the promotion of occupational safety and health in a green economy.

The responsibility for safe and healthy work and for improving working conditions resides at different levels: in the work place it’s a responsibility shared between employers and workers; at the local and national levels, responsibility rests with local and national governmental authorities, insurance companies of professional risk and trade unions; finally, international organizations like the ILO and WHO play a vital role at the global level.

It is necessary that employers develop programs of prevention and promotion of health at work and that governments monitor them. Equally, governments must develop public policies in order to protect informal and formal workers’ health and lives. They should also set up information and surveillance systems of occupational health.

The international organizations need to go beyond the general campaigns that have a rather low impact; it is necessary to develop a global strategy on occupational health for all, especially in developing countries, with adequate financial and human resources. Also, trade unions must put ‘health at work’ at the top of their agenda and develop union policies on the protection and defence of the right to health at work, and this for all workers.

For those who work in the public health field, it is important to understand that jobs are a crucial determinant of health, which demands the development of public health policies to intervene in the world of work. This also requires the strengthening of the local health system through the incorporation of a social determinants of health approach and the primary health care strategy. These approaches (that take place within a certain territory and population) will impact living, working and environmental conditions.

Work-related diseases, accidents and deaths are not facts of life; they are completely avoidable and preventable. As public health workers, we can contribute to improving this situation by working together with communities, workers, trade unions, employers and governments. The issue of occupational health and safety should be high on our agenda.  28 April is a day to keep that in mind.

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