Long hours linked to 750,000 work-related deaths, say WHO and ILO
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Work-related diseases and injuries were responsible for 1.9 million deaths worldwide in 2016, with non-communicable diseases accounting for 81% of fatalities, according to a new study from the World Health Organization (WHO) and International Labour Organization (ILO).

The majority of work-related deaths were due to respiratory and cardiovascular disease, the study found, with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease accounting for 450,000 deaths; stroke 400,000 deaths; and ischaemic heart disease 350,000 deaths. By contrast, occupational injuries were responsible for 360,000 or 19% of deaths.

Having considered 19 occupational risk factors, the study found the key risk to workers was exposure to long working hours – linked to approximately 750,000 deaths. The findings build upon a May 2021 study that quantified the burdens of heart disease and stroke attributable to overwork.

By contrast, workplace exposure to air pollution, including particulate matter, gases, and fumes, was responsible for 450,000 deaths. Also of note, a disproportionately large number of work-related deaths occur in workers in South-East Asia and the Western Pacific, and males and people aged over 54.

“It’s shocking to see so many people literally being killed by their jobs,” said Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO director-general. “Our report is a wake-up call to countries and businesses to improve and protect the health and safety of workers by honouring their commitments to provide universal coverage of occupational health and safety services.” 

Work-related diseases and injuries strain health systems, reduce productivity and can have a catastrophic impact on household incomes, the report warns. 

Globally, work-related deaths fell by 14% between 2000 and 2016. This may reflect improvements in workplace health and safety, the report suggests; however, deaths from heart disease and stroke associated with exposure to long working hours rose by 41% and 19% respectively. This reflects an increasing trend in this relatively new and psychosocial occupational risk factor.

The report also notes that the total work-related burden of disease is likely substantially larger, as health loss from several other occupational risk factors are still to be quantified. Moreover, the effects of the covid-19 pandemic will add another dimension to this burden to be captured in future estimates.

Overall, the findings show more action is needed to ensure healthier, safer, more resilient and more socially just workplaces, with a central role played by workplace health promotion and occupational health services, the report states.

“These estimates provide important information on the work-related burden of disease, and this information can help to shape policies and practices to create healthier and safer workplaces,” said Guy Ryder, ILO director-general.

“Governments, employers, and workers can all take actions to reduce exposure to risk factors at the workplace. Risk factors can also be reduced or eliminated through changes in work patterns and systems. As a last resort, personal protective equipment can also help to protect workers whose jobs mean they cannot avoid exposure.”

Dr Maria Neira, director of the WHO’s department of environment, climate change, and health, said the almost 2 million premature deaths reported were preventable. “Action needs to be taken based on the research available to target the evolving nature of work-related health threats.

“Ensuring health and safety among workers is a shared responsibility of the health and labour sector, as is leaving no workers behind in this regard. In the spirit of the UN Sustainable Development Goals, health and labour must work together, hand in hand, to ensure that this large disease burden is eliminated.”