Looking back to improve the future
Unknown to many people outside manual industries, April 28th marks the annual International Workers’ Memorial Day. Intended as a way to raise awareness of workplace fatalities across the world, the event is observed in at least 26 countries by trades unions, public health and safety organisations and workers themselves.
The focus in 2015 – workplace chemicals exposure
As well as raising general awareness of workplace deaths, the International Trades Union Congress (ITUC) who organise the event use the annual memorial to raise awareness of global issues that affect workers. This year the ITUC is encouraging their members to highlight the dangers posed by hazardous substances in the workplace.
Here in the UK, continued workplace awareness programs have helped raise the profile of conditions like asbestosis, contracted from exposure to asbestos particles on construction sites and similar. Elsewhere in the world, particularly in less well-developed nations, the risks of asbestos exposure are not as well understood, hence the need for outreach campaigns.
The ITUC believes that the current regulatory frameworks in place across the world are inadequate to fully protect workers from workplace dangers. In some countries they note that there is no legal protection at all for employees who are exposed to hazardous chemicals as part of their daily routine.
As a result, the ITUC is calling on their 176 million worldwide members to use International Workers Memorial Day to commemorate the deaths of workers and to highlight the dangers posed by chemical, biological and physical hazards on their worksites. According to the ITUC, there are at least 248,000 chemicals in use in workplaces across the globe, but only 181 have been tested by the relevant local government bodies for health and environmental effects. This despite 4000 of those chemicals having proven to be ‘carcinogenic, mutagenic or toxic’.
A shocking global death toll
International Workers’ Memorial Day uses the somewhat confrontational tagline ‘Remember the dead, fight like hell for the living’ to emphasise the seriousness of the continued campaign for improved working conditions. Around 160 million workers contract occupational diseases each year, most of which are thought to be caused by chemical agents. According to International Labour Organisation estimates this results in an estimated 651,279 deaths every year.
There is also evidence to suggest that at least 1 in 10 cancers is caused by (completely preventable) exposure to hazardous conditions and chemicals. Between 600,000 and 810,000 deaths occur every year through occupational cancer, equivalent to one person dying every 52 seconds. Although the UK has fairly stringent chemical handling and exposure legislation in place, workers continue to die every year from historical exposure to carcinogens in the same way they do of asbestosis.
The ITUC is also hoping to draw more attention to the dangers posed by pesticides to agricultural workers. Specifically designed to kill bugs that harm crops, pesticide exposure affects around 3% of agricultural workers every year and is believed to be the second largest cost of public health expenditure in sub-Saharan Africa. Although many pesticides are deemed “safe”, there is a thriving trade in illegal chemicals that has a serious impact on communities living and working in fields on which these chemicals are used.
Here in the UK, health and safety provisions are relatively effective, seeing rates of injury and death fall year-on-year. But as the ITUC is keen to demonstrate, not every worker worldwide is afforded such protections, emphasising the importance of awareness events like the International Workers’ Memorial Day.