Why global data makes health more of a priority than ever

Managing partner, Park Health and Safety Partnership

A few weeks ago there was an event attended by 3,000 people from around the world – addressed by ministers from several countries, heads of major non-governmental organisations and business leaders.

It was a salutary lesson in anti-isolationism, in the benefits of globalisation, at least in the arena of information, ideas and policy development. Kicked off by the Finnish government, which has declared worker safety, health and wellbeing to be a brand booster for the country, the World Congress on Safety and Health at Work in Singapore heard some pretty sobering statistics and embarked on a range of new initiatives intended to make the world of work safer and healthier.

Recent analysis by a team led by Jukka Takala, president of the International Commission on Occupational Health, has estimated, from published data from the International Labour Organization and World Health Organization, together with a variety of research papers, that this year 2.78 million people will die due to work-related causes.

The most significant issue the numbers highlighted was the differential between fatal accidents, which contribute 14% of the total, and occupational disease, which accounts for the remaining 86%. This differential is also reflected in the various measures of cost, of quality life years lost, and other ways to represent the devastating impact of badly managed workplace risk.

Of course, because we have been better at reducing accidents at work in Europe – with the UK in the first echelon, the health/safety ratio is even more unbalanced here. It seems likely that work-related disease, especially cancer, accounts for about fifty times more early deaths than accidents even in the high-risk world of construction.

Ill health is a major cost issue – measurable in human suffering and in about 3% of wasted GDP

We are beginning to acknowledge and act on this information by taking confidence from what has been achieved to make work safer. With a determination to maintain those gains and make further improvements, we are turning our attention to reducing the burden of ill-health. This is a major cost issue – measurable in human suffering and in about 3% of our GDP wasted just from the direct costs and productivity losses.

IOSH’s No Time to Lose campaign has helped many organisations to begin to turn the tide on exposures to carcinogens through elimination, substitution and better protection of workers. The British Occupational Hygiene Society has been making great efforts to support the construction industry tackling lung disease through its Breathe Freely campaign.

Just recently, the Health in Construction Leadership Group and the British Safety Council launched Mates in Mind which seeks to raise awareness, knowledge and skills in tackling mental ill-health.

There is a tide rising, encouraging all of us to fully address safety and health. It is global and local, and we need to be part of it as professionals and as humanitarians. Soon, I shall take the chair of the British Safety Council and look forward to working with IOSH, RoSPA and also the occupational health bodies to develop our community’s joint efforts to ensure that no-one is injured or made ill by their work.

As the title of Ali Smith’s latest novel says, we have to learn “how to be both”, in our case as safety practitioners and health practitioners; one without the other simply isn’t good enough and the numbers prove it.


Lawrence Waterman OBE CFIOSH is managing partner at the Park Health and Safety Partnership, and was formerly head of health and safety for the London Olympic Delivery Authority. He is past president of IOSH.

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