Swept under the office carpet

Fair employment and work conditions are hardly seen as health determinants

Published - January 27, 2019 12:02 am IST

Representational image.

Representational image.

In the wide range of causes that can lead to poor health and disease, the workplace, as a spate of recent studies suggest, is an under-reported but significant factor.

For example, an adverse work environment can cause respiratory infections, vector and parasitic diseases, heart ailments, stroke, mental, behavioural and neurological disorders, becoming over-weight and getting skin diseases, among other medical emergencies.

Right to health

Stress alone, at work, can manifest itself in the form of extreme fatigue, heart palpitation, excessive sleeping, insomnia, gastrointestinal problems, diarrhoea, constipation and, dermatological disorders, says the World Health Organisation (WHO), which asserts that working people have the right to health and access to health care as close as possible to where they live and work.

According to WHO, “When accounting for death and disability, the fraction of the global disease burden in the general population due to pursuing an occupation amounts to 2.7%. A large part of the population is directly affected by occupational risks, with around 62% of the population above 15 years being economically active. Low- and middle-income countries are disproportionally affected by occupational death and disease,” WHO adds in a 2018 study, “Preventing diseases through a healthier and safer workplace”.

Fair employment and decent work conditions are powerful determinants of health and can prevent at least 1.2 million deaths every year.

Another report, “Work for a Brighter Future”, which was published last week by the International Labour Organisation’s (ILO) Global Commission on the Future of Work says: “there is an urgent need to look at certain fundamental change in the way we work in the new wave of globalisation, rapid technological development, demographic transition and climate change.’’

Reducing occupational risks would have the greatest effect in reducing non-communicable diseases (NCDs). Some 51 million out of 73 million Disability-Adjusted Life Years (DALY) caused by occupational risks are NCDs.

‘Address health threats’

Dr. Maria Neira, WHO Director, Public Health, Environmental and Social Determinants of Health, says: “Much more death and disability can be prevented through addressing major health threats at the workplace, such as stress, long working hours and shift, sedentary work, climate sensitive diseases and workplace air pollution.”

Special challenges to occupational health include the large share of informal workers and the increasing impacts of an ageing workforce. Occupational risks are inordinately large in specific countries, and in certain occupations such as mining, construction and agriculture, and mainly affect lower socioeconomic groups. However, notes the WHO report, “new” occupational and work-related diseases, “such as work-related stress and health effects from different chemicals, complement the more traditional risks.”

The ILO Commission’s report is the culmination of a 15-month study by a 27-member group of experts on business and labour, think tanks, academia, government and non-governmental organisations. It has recommended establishing a Universal Labour Guarantee that includes a set of basic working conditions, such as an adequate living wage, limits on hours of work, and safe and healthy workplaces.

The report will be submitted at the Centenary session of the International Labour Conference in June 2019. The changing nature of jobs will also lead to new kinds of workplace health problems, but if managed well can be remedied.

The ILO says, “Artificial intelligence, automation and robotics will lead to job losses, as skills become obsolete. However, these same technological advances, along with the greening of economies, will also create millions of jobs, if new opportunities are seized.”


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