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Work-Related Deaths Top 5,000 Per Day Globally, and Rising
by Abid Aslam
Entered into the database on Friday, September 23rd, 2005 @ 16:29:02 MST


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Thousands of workers die on the job every day and the number is rising where employers and regulators skimp on safety measures in the mistaken belief that lower occupational health costs will boost companies' competitiveness, the lead United Nations labor agency said Monday.

Some 2.2 million workers die from job-related accidents and illness every year, the International Labor Organization (ILO) said in a new report. It urged international bodies, national and local governments, and individual companies to make sure fewer workers died or fell ill on the job.

''Occupational safety and health is vital to the dignity of work. Still, every day, on average, some 5,000 or more women and men around the world lose their lives because of work-related accidents and illness,'' said Juan Somavia, the ILO director-general.

The total death toll, based on figures from 2001, marked a 10 percent increase since 1998. The largest increases occurred in Latin America (33 percent) and China (22 percent), partly reflecting improved reporting of worker deaths.

Even so, the report faulted developing countries for low-balling their body counts.

India, for example, reported 222 fatal work-related accidents while the Czech Republic, with a working population about one percent the size of India's, reported 231. The ILO pegged the real number of fatal accidents in India at 40,000.

China, where construction and low-cost production have powered economic growth, reported 12,554 fatal accidents in 2001. However, the ILO said the actual number of worker deaths in the world's most populous country likely was closer to 90,000.

The death toll continues to rise in industrializing countries even as it falls in industrialized ones, the agency said.

To a large extent, this is because a jump in work-related injuries and deaths accompanies industrialization, which draws increasing numbers of people into dangerous construction, infrastructure, and factory jobs.

By contrast, wealthy countries' work forces increasingly are employed in the relatively safe service sector as hazardous jobs in steel mills, mining, and other heavy industry dwindle, the ILO said.

The vast majority of work-related deaths are from diseases including cancer and respiratory illnesses, both caused by exposure to hazardous substances, the ILO said. Infectious diseases also rank among the leading killers.

Hazardous materials kill some 440,000 workers every year, with exposure to asbestos alone claiming an estimated 100,000 workers' lives annually, the ILO said. Asbestos, a fibrous mineral used in construction and prized as a fire retardant, is known to cause diseases and lung cancer even many years after being inhaled.

The ILO blamed ''rapid development and strong competitive pressures of globalization'' for the upsurge in worker deaths, particularly in Asia.

It sought to rebut the argument that poor countries and companies would lose their competitiveness--derived mainly from their ability to offer inexpensive products by keeping down unit costs--were they to ramp up safety and health measures, including occupational safety and health inspections.

''Selecting a low-safety, low-health, and low-income survival strategy may not lead to high competitiveness or sustainability,'' the report said.

''Inspectors should not be considered a nuisance or threats to business,'' it added. ''Countries with the best inspection systems are also the most competitive ones worldwide.''

Yet, most workers lack legal protection from unsafe work conditions, cannot claim compensation for injuries or illnesses suffered on the job, and have no access to workplace health services, the agency said.

''The sad truth is that in some parts of the world, many workers will probably die for lack of an adequate safety culture,'' Jukka Takala, director of the ILO's safe work program, said in a statement. ''This is a heavy price to pay for uncontrolled development. We must act swiftly to reverse these trends.''

While men account for 80 percent of all work-related deaths, the report said, some 22,000 children die at work each year.

Among signs of progress, the report said 28 countries had signed on to the ILO's Convention on Asbestos, and China has set up a workplace safety department and undertaken a national assessment of what is needed to prevent worker deaths and illness.

The agency released its report at an international occupational health and safety conference in Orlando, Florida.