Washington, D.C., 30 September (PAHO/WHO) — Health leaders from countries throughout the Americas have agreed to take a series of measures over the next 10 years aimed at safeguarding the lives of workers and improving their health and well-being, with special attention workers in inequitable conditions of employment and those exposed to hazardous working conditions.
The new Plan of Action on Workers' Health was approved by the 54th Directing Council of the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), which is taking place this week in Washington, D.C. It commits countries, over the next decade, to adopt new laws, regulations and implement public policies that provide protections for workers from unsafe and unhealthy working conditions and workplace environments.
The region of the Americas has a workforce of 484 million people, representing almost half the total population, according to International Labor Organization (ILO) data. Latin America and the Caribbean make up 62.3% of that workforce. In 2011, over 54% of the region's workers were in the informal sector, which is characterized by low incomes and poor social security coverage.
"Workers face several health challenges," said Luiz Galvão, head of PAHO's special program on Sustainable Development and the Environment. "Many are exposed to workplace hazards ranging from unsafe conditions and exposure to chemical, physical or biological agents, to ergonomic and psychological stressors."
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), there are nearly 140 million new cases of occupational diseases per year worldwide, although many are not identified as such. They include both communicable and noncommunicable work-related diseases. Occupational risks contribute an estimated 15% to the total disease burden.
Occupational deaths and accidents also constitute a major public health problem. In 2007, for example, there were an estimated 7.6 million occupational injuries in the Americas, according to the PAHO publication Health in the Americas. Occupational hazards are costly for countries. In 2012, they represented between 1.8% and 6% of gross domestic product (GDP) worldwide, according to the ILO, but this proportion could rise to 15% due to the cost of involuntary early retirement. Health systems bear a large share of this burden through the costs of health service delivery.
"Preventive measures in the workplace require coordination among all productive sectors to protect workers' health and lives," Galvão said. "Health authorities have a crucial role to play in strengthening public policies and regulations on workers' health. And they need to do so in collaboration with other government sectors, particularly ministries of labor and other important sectors such as mining and agriculture. This Plan of Action on Workers' Health provides a roadmap for adopting measures to ensure that workers' health is a priority."
The plan commits countries to take actions—with PAHO support—that include drafting legislation and technical regulations on workers' health; identifying, evaluating, and inspecting hazardous workplace exposures and conditions; and strengthening diagnostic capabilities, information systems, epidemiological surveillance, and research on work-related diseases, accidents, and deaths.
Countries will also work to improve workers' access to health care and health coverage and to promote multisectoral activities to advance health, well-being, and healthy practices in the workplace.
The PAHO Directing Council brings together health ministers and high-level delegates from PAHO/WHO member countries in Washington, D.C. to discuss and analyze health policies and to set priorities for PAHO technical cooperation programs and regional public health collaboration.
The Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) works with the countries of the Americas to improve the health and quality of life of the population. Founded in 1902, it is the oldest international public health agency in the world. It serves as the WHO Regional Office for the Americas and is the specialized health agency of the Inter-American system.