Occupational Diseases Pose Very Serious Threat to Health and Welfare of Workers

coal mine worker

Occupational diseases constitute a much more serious risk to the health and welfare of workers than is normally realized. The International Labor Organization and the World Health Organization got together jointly to estimate the number of deaths caused by occupational diseases and injuries at world level for 2016. The two international agencies found that as many as 1.90 million ( 19 lakh) people died from occupational diseases and injuries this year. Out of this 360,000 deaths were caused by occupational injuries. This implies that the remaining 1.54 million (15.4 lakh) were caused by occupational disease.

In other words, although occupational accidents generally become news while occupational diseases seldom do so, in fact among all deaths caused by occupational diseases and injuries, occupational diseases cause as many as 82% of total deaths (1.54 million out of 1.90 million) while occupational accidents cause 18% deaths. Occupational deaths can this be called a silent killer.

Providing a further breakdown of these deaths, the ILO/WHO estimate attributes the highest number—750,000—to long working hours. This is a very significant number for all those struggling against imposition of unduly long working hours, particularly in situations of working conditions which even otherwise are unhealthy and/or stressful. This estimate has a high relevance for countries like India where the rights of workers for more limited working hours are being pushed back in recent times.

Workplace air pollution, in the form of exposure to particulate matter, gases and fumes, has been estimated by the ILO/WHO study to be responsible for 450,000 deaths in 2016.

However this estimate only looks at occupational deaths and hence cannot convey a complete picture of the immense distress caused by various highly painful conditions and disabilities caused to millions of workers by occupational diseases. Due to poverty, economic compulsions and lack of compensatory payments, most of them have to continue working in these conditions, increasing their distress and health risks. When they cannot work any more, many of them are discarded all too easily by non-caring employers, forced to live out the rest of their life in extremely difficult conditions, as can be seen in the context of many victims of occupational diseases in India.

While a lot of essential information is needed on occupational diseases to plan an adequate and proper response, unfortunately reliable, updated and relevant data on crucial aspects of occupational diseases in most countries is missing. This is unfortunately true even in the case of a country like the USA where often there is an excess of data in the context of issues of much lesser importance. A review of the existing data on occupational diseases by the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention appears to be marked more by what is missing than by what is available. Thus this review states that 66,000 cases of occupational skin diseases were reported in a year, then hastens to add that this is a case of severe under-reporting. Why severe under-reporting should persist on such an important issue is not stated.

In the context of asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, it is stated that 20 million workers in the USA are potentially exposed. But what is more important is to find out how many actually suffer. In the case of occupational threat in the form of hearing loss to various extents this review is more firm in stating that this is the most widespread occupational health problem in the USA , with more than 30 million exposed to hazardous noise, and an additional 9 million at risk from other ote-traumatic agents. In addition 30% of American workers are employed in jobs that routinely require them to perform activities that may increase risk of developing lower back disorders. In a single year 332,000 musculoskeltal injuries were reported in US workplaces.

In his book The Picture of Health Erik Eckholm stated that as many as 100,000 people die from occupational diseases while 390,000 new cases of occupational disease appear in a year in the USA. Nearly 10 million workers are estimated to be exposed in this country to 11 high-volume carcinogens. Big increase in cancer rates have been reported in some lines of work. In fact occupational risks are increasing the most in those lines of work in which new and serious hazards are appearing but in most cases the seriousness of these hazards is sought to be denied or underplayed by very powerful industrial interests, delaying remedial action, if not altogether denying it.

Another disturbing trend is that with changes in farm technology, very serious hazards in the form of poisonous chemicals and other inputs are appearing in farm work too, even in remote villages but very little regulatory and remedial action is visible.

Several multinational companies are only too willing to send their more hazardous processes to countries of the global south, thereby shifting the burden of occupational diseases more to poorer countries which have much lesser capability for coping with them.

Hence there are big challenges ahead for reducing the burden of occupational diseases, and these are likely to be particularly more acute in the global south.

Bharat Dogra is Honorary Convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now. His recent books include Man over Machine, A Day in 2071 and Planet in Peril.


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