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

Introduction: The right to health at work

The right to health and safety at work: a part of basic human rights Most of the world’s population (58%) spend one-third of their adult life at work contributing actively to the development and well-being of them-selves, their families and of society. Work may have both a positive or an adverse effect on the health of the worker. In the most favourable circumstances work provides the income and material outputs for meeting the necessities of life and also has a positive impact on social, psychological and physical health and well-being. At the same time, a high level of occupational health and safety contributes to the achievement of material and economic objectives and provides high quality and performance in work-ing life. In spite of this, conditions at work and in the work environment for many occupations and in many countries still involve a distinct and even severe hazard to health that reduces the well-being, working capacity and even the life span of working individuals.

Conditions of work and the work environment may have either a positive or hazardous impact on health and well-being. Ability to participate in the working life opens the individual possibilities to carry out economically independent life, develop his or her working skills and social contacts. One-third of adult life is spent at work where the economic and material values of society are generated. On the other hand, dangerous exposures and loads are often several times greater in the workplace than in any other environment with adverse consequences on health.

The officially registered working population constitutes 60-70% of the adult male and 30-60% of the adult female population of the world. When work at home and informal work are taken into consideration the percent-age is even higher. In unfavourable cases the levels and intensities of hazardous exposures may be 10 or even 1000 times greater at work than elsewhere. Workers in the highest risk industries such as mining, forestry, construction and agriculture are often at an unreasonably high risk and one-fifth to one-third may suffer occupational injury or disease annually, leading in extreme cases to high prevalence of work disability and even to premature death. Less dramatic but well-defined occupational health problems also prevail in service and office occupations where psychological stressors and ergonomic problems often increase the workload, cause job dissatisfaction and affect health and productivity.

On the other hand, a number of studies have provided convincing evidence of a positive association between health, well-being, well-organized work and a healthy work environment where safety and health are considered and where conditions conducive to one’s professional and social development are provided.

It is universally accepted and confirmed in several documents by the United Nations, The WHO Global Strategy for Health for All by the Year 2000, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and others that every citizen of the world has a right to healthy and safe work and to a work environment that enables him or her to live a socially and economically productive life. Virtually all countries are still far from this objective, as evidenced by the high numbers of occupational accidents and diseases. Thus a new global strategy for health at work is very relevant to WHO and other organizations interested in dealing with workers’ health issues. In spite of the great differences in levels of safety and health at work and the type and occurrence of occupational health problems, also a national strategy is needed in each country.

Several sectors of society are involved in or have an impact on occupational health. Intersectoral and inter-agency collaboration is thus needed between various actors, such as employers, workers, governments and ex-pert bodies at national level. At international level more collaboration in issues of occupational health is needed between WHO and other UN or-ganizations such as International Labour Organisation (ILO), United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the World Bank and nongovernmental organizations such as International Commission on Occupational Health (ICOH) and International Occupational Hygiene Association (IOHA).

According to the principles of the United Nations, WHO and ILO, every citizen of the world has a right to healthy and safe work and to a work environment that enables him or her to live a socially and economically productive life.