In general, health and safety in the workplace has improved in most industrialized countries over the past 20 to 30 years. However, the situation in developing countries is relatively unclear largely because of inadequate accident and disease recognition, record-keeping and reporting mechanisms.
It is estimated that at least 250 million occupational accidents occur every year worldwide. 335,000 of these accidents are fatal (result in death). (Since many countries do not have accurate record-keeping and reporting mechanisms, it can be assumed that the real figures are much higher than this.) The number of fatal accidents is much higher in developing countries than in industrialized ones. This difference is primarily due to better health and safety programmes, improved first-aid and medical facilities in the industrialized countries, and to active participation of workers in the decision-making process on health and safety issues. Some of the industries with the highest risk of accidents worldwide are: mining, agriculture, including forestry and logging, and construction.
Identifying the cause of an accident
In some cases, the cause of an industrial injury is easy to identify. However, very often there is a hidden chain of events behind the accident which led up to the injury. For example, accidents are often indirectly caused by negligence on the part of the employer who may not have provided adequate worker training, or a supplier who gave the wrong information about a product, etc. The consistently high fatal accident rates in developing countries emphasize the need for occupational health and safety education programmes that focus on prevention. It is equally important to promote the development of occupational health services, including the training of doctors to recognize work-related diseases in the early stages.
Exposure to hazards in the workplace can lead to serious illness.
Some occupational diseases have been recognized for many years, and affect workers in different ways depending on the nature of the hazard, the route of exposure, the dose, etc. Some well known occupational diseases include:
asbestosis (caused by asbestos, which is common in insulation, automobile brake linings, etc.);
silicosis (caused by silica, which is common in mining, sandblasting, etc.);
lead poisoning (caused by lead, which is common in battery plants, paint factories, etc.);
and noise-induced hearing loss (caused by noise, which is common in many workplaces, including airports, and workplaces where noisy machines, such as presses or drills, etc. are used).
There are also a number of potentially crippling health problems that can be associated with poor working conditions, including:
musculoskeletal disorders such as permanent back injuries or muscle disorders;
Many developing countries report only a small number of workers affected by work-related diseases. These numbers look small for a variety of reasons that include:
inadequate or non-existent reporting mechanisms;
a lack of occupational health facilities;
a lack of health care practitioners who are trained to recognize work-related diseases.
Because of these reasons and others, it is fair to assume that in reality, the numbers of workers afflicted with occupational diseases are much higher. In fact, overall, the number of cases and types of occupational diseases are increasing, not decreasing, in both developing and industrialized countries.
Identifying the cause of occupational disease
The cause of work-related diseases is very often difficult to determine. One factor is the latency period (the fact that it may take years before the disease produces an obvious effect on the worker’s health). By the time the disease is identified, it may be too late to do anything about it or to find out what hazards the worker was exposed to in the past. Other factors such as changing jobs, or personal behaviours (such as smoking tobacco or drinking alcohol) further increase the difficulty of linking workplace exposures to a disease outcome.
Although more is understood now about some occupational hazards than in the past, every year new chemicals and new technologies are being introduced which present new and often unknown hazards to both workers and the community. These new and unknown hazards present great challenges to workers, employers, educators, and scientists, that is to everyone concerned about workers’ health and the effects that hazardous agents have on the environment.