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Occupational safety and health as a fundamental right IOSH policy position

Poor working conditions and ill-treatment at work have a huge impact on people’s lives, putting them at risk of accidents and ill health, something no one should be subjected to.

On the same basis that fundamental rights at work are deemed essential, safe and healthy working conditions are fundamental to decent work. Poor working conditions and ill-treatment at work, including factors such as poor pay and discrimination, can lead to excessive hours, fatigue and mental and physical harm. Protecting human rights at work is clearly integral to workers’ wellbeing and ability to fulfil their potential, which importantly also requires safe and healthy working conditions.

There is a growing momentum worldwide led by governments, regulators, investors, businesses, employers, civil society, social partners and other stakeholders to mainstream the protection of occupational safety and health through regulations and standards. These developments, if articulated through a human rights-based approach, will help to strengthen the coherence between human rights and occupational safety and health standards to reinforce the principle that all workers share the right to a safe and healthy working environment.

The facts

  • The International Labour Organization Constitution sets forth the principle that workers must be protected from sickness, disease and injury arising from their employment. Yet according to one estimate,[1] across the world in 2017 2.78 million deaths resulted from occupational accidents or work-related diseases. The biggest share of work-related mortality was from work-related illnesses, which accounted for 2.40 million (86.3 per cent) of the total estimated deaths. Fatal injuries accounted for the remaining 13.7 per cent.
  • Workplace-related deaths[2] exceed the average annual deaths from road accidents (999,000), war (502,000), violence (563,000) and HIV/AIDS (312,000).
  • In terms of the estimated numbers of deaths globally,[3,4] the occupational risk factor with the largest number of attributable deaths in 2016 was exposure to long working hours (39.6 per cent), followed by occupational exposure to particulate matter, gases, and fumes (24.0 per cent) and occupational injuries (19.3 per cent). Occupational injuries were the risk factor responsible for the largest number of Disability-Adjusted Life-Years lost in 2016 globally (29.5 per cent), followed by exposure to long working hours (25.9 per cent) and occupational ergonomic factors (13.7 per cent).
  • The rates of fatal occupational accidents per 100,000 workers also show stark regional differences, with rates in Africa and Asia four to five times higher than those in Europe.

Our position

There is a growing momentum worldwide led by governments, investors, companies, civil society, social partners and other stakeholders to mainstream the protection of occupational safety and health through regulations and standards. These developments, if implemented through a human rights-based approach, will help to strengthen the coherence between human rights and occupational safety and health (OSH) standards to reinforce the principle that all workers share the right to a safe and healthy working environment.

In today’s changing world of work, a human rights-based approach to OSH increases the possibility of securing policies and practices that can lead to decent working conditions. Employers and governments alike will be more aware of the scrutiny they face should they fall short of OSH provisions and protections. Such an approach may also be helpful in achieving the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

The protection of fundamental human rights at work is clearly integral to workers’ wellbeing and ability to fulfil their potential, which importantly also requires safe and healthy working conditions. It comes as part of a renewed societal responsibility that looks to achieve sustainable economic growth, decent work and more resilient societies. It seeks to embed a new social licence to operate, using international standards and corporate social responsibility as a means to improve working conditions worldwide.

IOSH calls for OSH to be recognised as a fundamental right. We recommend that the next decade should embed the social elements of sustainability, requiring decent work, effective occupational safety and health management, the prevention of modern slavery,4 and protection for those in the informal economy.

IOSH resources

  • IOSH’s ‘Catch the wave’ campaign demonstrates why occupational safety, health and wellbeing is a foundation for socially sustainable business. As part of the initiative, IOSH has produced a short online course exploring the definitions of social sustainability and human capital, and what this means for business.
  • In January 2021 IOSH joined the civil and professional organisations accredited by the Commonwealth to advance the agenda of business human rights (incorporating worker rights), sustainable development and the importance of promoting health and wellbeing in combatting disease.
  • IOSH reinforced its commitment to building a sustainable future by joining the United Nations (UN) Global Compact – the world’s largest corporate sustainability initiative – as a participant.
  • IOSH joined the World Benchmarking Alliance This represents an opportunity for advancing critical conversations and solutions around SDG financing and delivery, as well as systems-level transformations.
  • IOSH is partnering the Vision Zero initiative that aims to prevent physical and mental harm to the global workforce, with Vision Zero training accreditation.
  • Our 2017-2022 strategy, WORK 2022, sets out how we can help decision-makers to prevent work-related injury and ill health.
  • IOSH published a white paper in September 2019, Tackling modern slavery together, which calls on governments, employers and the public to fight against modern slavery.

Consultation responses:

  • Pakistan National Action Plan on Business and Human Rights by the Ministry of Human Rights – Government of Pakistan, March 2021.
  • Malaysian Occupational Safety and Health Master Plan 2021–2025, response to the Department of Occupational Safety and Health (DOSH), Ministry of Human Resources, Malaysia – December 2020.
  • United Nations business and human rights – towards a decade of global implementation project, November 2020.
  • Consultation paper Why and how investors should act on human rights from the Principles for Responsible Investment (PRI), September 2020.
  • European Commission Trade Policy review - A renewed trade policy for a stronger Europe – Consultation note, September 2020.
  • Ghana Draft Occupational Safety and Health Bill response to the Ghana Ministry of Employment and Labour Relations consultation, July 2019.
  • Draft Singapore WSH2028 Strategy from the Ministry of Manpower

 


  1. Takala J et al. Global Estimates of Occupational Injuries and Work-related Illnesses 2017. Workplace Safety and Health Institute. 2017.
  2. World Health Organization. Global health estimates Geneva, 2019.
  3. WHO/ILO joint estimates of the work-related burden of disease and injury, 2000-2016: global monitoring report: Geneva: World Health Organization and International Labour Organization, 2021. Licence: CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 IGO
  4. United Nations Global Compact. Occupational safety and health briefing. December, 2021.