Long hours ‘a key cause of work-related deaths’

A global health report says that long working hours are increasingly causing work-related deaths. Copyright: Image by mrkaushikkashish from Pixabay. This image has been cropped.

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  • Diseases of lung, strokes, heart disease are major causes of work-related deaths
  • Workers in South and South-East Asia are exposed to high levels of air pollution
  • Long working hours in the informal sector are a growing contributor to deaths

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[NEW DELHI] Almost two million people worldwide die of work-related causes, according to joint estimates by the World Health Organization and the International Labour Organization, which cite long working hours, pollution and poor conditions as major factors.

The Global Monitoring Report found that 81 per cent of the 1.9 million work-related deaths in 2016 occurred as a result of non-communicable diseases, including chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, stroke and ischaemic heart disease (heart ailments caused by narrowed heart arteries), while 19 per cent were caused by work-related injuries including road injuries, falls, drowning and injuries by mechanical forces.

Migrant workers doing construction work. Image credit: ILO (CC BY-ND 2.0).

“It’s shocking to see so many people literally being killed by their jobs,” said WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who described the findings as a “wake-up call to countries and businesses to improve and protect the health and safety of workers”.

According to the estimates, work-related exposure to gases, fumes and particulate matter led to an estimated 450,000 deaths from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

“The risk of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease has been estimated to be increased by 58—182 per cent among people occupationally exposed to particulate matter, gases and fumes, compared with people unexposed to this occupational risk factor,” the report says.

In 2016, work-related exposure to asbestos, silica and arsenic led to the deaths of 209,481, 42,258 and 7,589, respectively. Asbestos exposure also resulted in cancers of the ovary, larynx and a malignant disease called mesothelioma.

Between 2000 and 2016, there was a 14 per cent decrease in work-related deaths per population across the globe, the joint estimates reveal. However, WHO says in a press statement that  “deaths from heart disease and stroke associated with exposure to long working hours rose by 41 and 19 per cent respectively. This reflects an increasing trend in this relatively new and psychosocial occupational risk factor”.

Yuka Ujita, senior specialist at ILO Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific, says 19 major occupational risk factors and their associated health outcomes were analysed to obtain a precise estimate of the number of work-related deaths.

“A disproportionately large number of work-related deaths occur in workers in South-East Asia and the Western Pacific,” Ujita tells SciDev.Net. “More specifically, the highest number of deaths from stroke and ischemic heart disease attributable to exposure to long working hours was reported for the South-East Asia Region.”

“The highest number of deaths from stroke and ischemic heart disease attributable to exposure to long working hours was reported for the South-East Asia Region”

Yuka Ujita, ILO Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific

Frank Pega, technical officer for environment, climate change, and health at WHO and lead author of the report, tells SciDev.Net that in South-East Asia, especially in low- and middle-income countries, the largest risk factor is exposure to long working hours. Workers in the informal economy who live in poverty may be forced to work long hours for financial survival, he says.

Milind Kandlikar, professor at the University of British Columbia, Canada, notes that many workers particularly in South and South-East Asia are in industries with poor working conditions and are exposed to high levels of air pollution. “These exposures can also lead to deaths from stroke, heart disease, and diseases of the lung,” he tells Scidev.Net.

“That exposure to long working hours is the risk factor that causes the largest number of deaths is highly concerning, especially because our estimates show that one in ten workers globally works hazardously long hours,” says Pega. “We must now act together, as governments, employers and workers, to apply the known legal, regulatory, policy and health service solutions to limit working time to the maximum healthy limits.”

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This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s Asia & Pacific desk.