Q: What is Occupational Health?
Photocredit: MC Lavoie
A: According to the ILO and WHO, occupational health is “the promotion and maintenance of the highest degree of physical, mental, and social well-being of workers in all occupations by preventing departures from health, controlling risks and the adaptation of work to people, and the people to their jobs”1. While the definition of occupational health greatly varies, employment and working conditions and environments are well known factors that contribute to health.
Q: Why are we concerned about occupational health?
A: Approximately 65% of the Region’s population is engaged in the workforce and the average worker spends approximately two-thirds of their life at work. Work is not only a source of income, but is also a fundamental element of health, status, social relations, and life opportunities. Occupational health is a strategy that ensures the health of workers, as well as the strength of national economies through better productivity, motivation, and quality of products. At the global level, safe and healthy work has a powerful capacity to mitigate inequalities. It is a key target of the first Millennium Development Goal of eliminating extreme poverty and hunger.
Q: How often do work-related injuries and deaths occur in Latin America and the Caribbean?
A: Approximately thirty-six work-related injuries occur every minute and 300 workers die daily due to occupational accidents2. Almost 800 000 deaths each year worldwide are due to occupational injuries and 11,000,000 occupational diseases3. As these figures demonstrate, work-related deaths and injuries put a strong burden on medical services. The cost of occupational injuries and deaths ranges from 2 to 14% of some countries’ GDP4
Q: What are the most common illnesses that are linked to occupational hazards?
A: Exposure to unsafe and unhealthy working conditions and environments are a problem in many parts of the world. Globally, the top three most common occupational health problems are back pain (37%), hearing loss (16%), and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (13%)5. The most prevalent occupational illnesses in the Americas are occupational hearing loss, acute pesticide poisoning, heavy metals poisoning, and skin and respiratory diseases. In agricultural workers in Central America, for example, there have been as many as 7000 acute pesticide poisonings per year6.
Q: How many workers have access to basic occupational health services in the Americas?
Photocredit: MC Lavoie
A: Only 10 to 15% of workers in the Americas have access to basic occupational health services7, which uses a primary health care approach8 to protect the health of workers and prevent workplace injuries or accidents. Basic occupational health services provide every worker with occupational health services such as treatment, preventive information, care, and rehabilitation regardless of their economic sector, size of company, geographical location, or type of employment contract. Informal workers are generally unprotected, as they receive little to no basic occupational health services and do not have health or social security coverage under their national systems. Those who receive coverage tend to work in the formal sector.
Q: Who is responsible for keeping the workplace safe and healthy?
A: Workers’ health is a complex issue and many people are key players in keeping workplaces healthy and safe for all. Employers, workers, labor representatives, and governments at all levels and of different sectors (labor, health, environment, agriculture, social security, etc) are all implicated in upholding the right to safe and healthy work. They work together to develop and implement workplace health and safety programs and policies, as well as conduct research and produce tools needed to advance workers’ health. Occupational health and safety committees, composed of employer and employee representatives, are one strategy that is used to protect and promote workers’ health.
Q: What is the role of PAHO with regards to workers’ health?
A: PAHO provides technical cooperation to member states in the region of the Americas to support the development and continued improvement of healthy and safe workplaces. We liaise with a variety of inter-sectoral stakeholders to proactively prevent workplace disease, injury, and death, as well as respond to global, regional, and national priorities in workers’ health. Our extensive network of Collaborating Centers in Occupational Health is a key resource in lending tools and generating as well as providing leading research of workers’ health and safety that is used to inform decision-making related to workers’ health. Therefore, the collaborating centers play an essential role in assisting PAHO to fulfill its mandated mission.