Occupational health

Global strategy on occupational health for all: The way to health at work

Recommendation of the second meeting of the WHO Collaborating Centres in Occupational Health, 11-14 October 1994, Beijing, China

The workplace and sustainable development

Work a key process and workplace a critical site for efforts towards sustainable development In the declaration of the Rio Summit, sustainable development is defined as a strategy to "meet the needs of the present world population without causing adverse effect on health and on the environment, and without depleting or endangering the global resource base, hence without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs". The Declaration further stated: "Human beings are at the centre of concern for sustainable development. They are entitled to a healthy and productive life in harmony with nature".

In terms of occupational health, the above principles mean the satisfaction of material needs through work and other production processes without causing danger to human health, the ecosystem, the resource base or the health of the community either in the short term or the long term. Occupational health is a basic element and constitutes a social and health dimension of the principle of sustainable development.

Occupational health is at the centre of sustainable development in the following ways:

  • The prevention of occupational accidents, injuries and diseases and the protection of workers against physical and psychological over-load imply a parsimonious use of resources, minimizing the unneces-sary loss of human and material resources.
  • The objective of healthy and safe work environments call for the use of safest, low-energy, low-emission, low-waste (green) technology and in many countries occupational health legislation requires the use of the best available production technology.
  • The occupational health approach has been shown to facilitate the undisturbed production that increases the quality of products, productivity and process management and thus helps to avoid unnecessary loss of energy and materials and to prevent unwanted impact on the environment.
  • Many environmental hazards and burdens are derived from occupational settings, e.g. industry, agricultural practices or transportation and services. Experts and others responsible for occupational health and safety are well informed of processes and agents that may be hazardous to the environment and often this information is available to them at a very early stage of the problem, thus enabling primary prevention that is no longer possible once the hazardous elements are released into the general environment. The impact of occupational health on environmental protection in the case of problems derived from production systems is likely to be both effective and cost-effective. In many industrialized countries there are moves to make closer links between occupational health and environmental health approaches
  • Occupational health services aim to ensure the health, safety, work-ing capacity and well-being of the working population. A healthy, productive and well-motivated workforce is the key agent for overall socio-economic development. Moreover, high-quality and productive work can ensure healthy production of materials, goods and services, and the consideration and practical implementation of the principles of sustainable development.
  • Most environmental health hazards that have later been found to affect the health of the general population were first detected in the work environment and/or in the working populations. Thus the occupational environment provides an early warning system for certain environmental health hazards just as it also provides effective models for preventive action.
  • For more than half of adults the work environment is the most demanding environment in terms of physical, chemical, ergonomic or psychological stresses and physical workload. The requirement of the Rio Declaration on healthy and productive life is particularly relevant to the work environment and calls for occupational health action.
  • The state of the general environment and the ecosystem has an impact on the health of workers either indirectly or directly in several occupations of agriculture, mining, fishery and manufacturing. Thus, there is a two-way relationship between occupational health and safety on the one hand and environmentally sound sustainable development on the other.
  • Equally important for personal well-being and for socio-economic development of communities and countries is an employment policy that ensures access to work for everyone and enables individuals to sustain themselves and their families by their own work. Highest possible employment is also a key factor in the safe, stable and sustainable social development of countries while high unemployment rates and other associated problems endanger such development.
  • Particularly in developing countries the health and well-being of the family is critically dependent on the health and productivity of its working member, thus making several members of the community dependent on the health of the worker. In a situation where organized social protection is lacking, the loss of health, life or working capacity of such a key member of the family often means a severe crisis also for the rest of the family, affecting indirectly the well-being, health and economy of communities at large and of future generations.

Occupational health is a basic element and constitutes a social and health dimension of the principle of sustainable development. Occupational health practices constitute a set of key activities for such development.