What is Occupational Safety and Health?

Safety and health in the workplace — otherwise known as occupational safety and health (OSH) — is the “discipline dealing with the prevention of work-related injuries and diseases, as well as the protection and promotion of the health of workers”, according to the International Labour Organization (ILO). Ultimately, OSH is the improvement of working conditions and environments to ensure workers’ safety and health are maintained while working and to provide compensation if a work-related injury occurs.

OSH is regulated at international, regional and national levels. Safety and health in the workplace do not just apply to typically dangerous jobs, such as working at height or with chemicals, but to all places of employment, including offices. OSH laws and regulations also include the requirement of employers to adapt work and the workplace to the capabilities of workers in light of their physical and mental health.

OSH is considered an integral part of the right to the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health (or to put in more simply “the right to health”), which is affirmed in the UDHR, the ICESCR and many other international human rights instruments. Moreover, healthy and safe occupational conditions are considered one of the key underlying determinants of health: i.e. a precondition for the effective enjoyment of the right to health.

What is the Dilemma?

The dilemma for responsible business is how to ensure that workplaces are safe for all workers, in all locations of their business or supply chain, particularly when operating in countries in which national safety and health and employment injury protection schemes are deficient, or where there is an absence of a culture of safety and health at the national and workplace levels.

Responsible businesses can find themselves in situations where their own safety and health requirements and standards cannot be met by suppliers or business partners due to a lack of equipment or resources in their country, or an unwillingness to put standards beyond local legal compliance in place that may be seen as an unnecessary expense. Additionally, adapting the workplace or work activities to meet individual worker needs can be challenging as different workers will have different requirements.

Prevalence of Occupational Safety and Health Problems

The ILO estimates that 2.78 million workers die each year from occupational accidents and work-related diseases, and an additional 374 million workers suffer from non-fatal occupational accidents. This corresponds to 7,500 deaths from unsafe and unhealthy working conditions every single day, 6,500 of which can be attributed to work-related diseases and 1,000 to occupational accidents. This is an estimation as many workplace deaths or injuries are not reported to relevant authorities. Additionally, long-term work-related illness or death (such as respiratory disease or cancers suspected to be caused by working with chemicals) may also go unreported as the illness or death may occur many years after employment ends.

Many employees also experience mental health problems such as anxiety or stress that can be exacerbated or caused by work and work environments, and can also lead to long-term sickness or days off work unwell due to mental ill-health. World Health Organization (WHO) studies suggest that there is a cost of over US$1trillion to the global economy each year from lost productivity due to mental health problems.

Key trends include:

  • The burden of occupational mortality and morbidity is not equally distributed across the world, among industries, and among the workforce. About two-thirds (65%) of global work-related mortality is estimated to occur in Asia, followed by Africa (11.8%), Europe (11.7%), America (10.9%) and Oceania (0.6%). The rates of fatal occupational accidents per 100,000 workers also show stark regional differences, with those in Africa and Asia between 4 and 5 times higher than those in Europe.
  • Manufacturing, construction, transportation and storage are the industries that experience the highest level of work-related accidents. In these highly hazardous sectors, as well as elsewhere, work-related injuries are not equally distributed among the workforce. The workers most exposed to work-related injuries are those in precarious employment (temporary, casual or part-time workers), workers in informal employment, those working in small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), and those subject to discrimination and marginalization (such as migrant workers, young workers, and racial and ethnic minorities).
  • The world is being profoundly affected by the global pandemic. Due to COVID-19 risks, businesses have had to adapt to restrictions set by Governments around the world to keep their workforces safe, including allowing workers to ‘work from home’ where possible, creating shift patterns to allow for social distancing and introducing heightened cleaning and sanitation protocols to keep employees safe. These activities are likely to continue for some time, and working styles in some industries (such as professional services) may change to a more flexible, remote working approach that will create new challenges for OSH, including ensuring workers have appropriate equipment to use at home to complete their jobs. There may also be a potential rise in mental health issues as workers may feel isolated and unable to have a clear differentiation between work and home.
  • Mental health accommodation and protection in the workplace have become increasingly common in OSH planning and management. Mental health issues, such as work-related stress or depression, not only affect the individual but also result in lost business productivity. While in some countries mental health issues are still seen as taboo or controversial, many businesses are proactively supporting mental health and well-being approaches for employees.
  • The World Bank estimates that around 1 billion people — 15% of the global population — experience some form of disability. As such, OSH management is developing to increasingly accommodate physical disabilities, such as blindness or physical restrictions, as well as mental disabilities, such as autism, dyslexia or learning disabilities. The ILO highlights that businesses that are inclusive of disabilities in the workplace are more likely to have positive workforce morale, high levels of productivity and a more diverse workforce.

Impacts on Businesses

While OSH hazards are intrinsic to all workplaces, those located in countries with limited resources, weak legal frameworks, inadequate enforcement and support functions face particular challenges. This is often exacerbated by the absence of a preventive safety and health culture, both at national and workplace levels, and the lack of protection schemes against work-related injury. Businesses can be impacted by OSH issues in their operations and supply chains in multiple ways:

  • Physical risk: Safety and health accidents can include major incidents like fires, explosions or building collapses that not only hurt employees but also destroy and damage property.
  • Reputational and brand risk: Campaigns by non-governmental organizations (NGOs), trade unions, consumers and other stakeholders can result in reduced sales and/or brand erosion.
  • Financial risk: Divestment and/or avoidance by investors and finance providers (many of which are increasingly applying environmental, social and governance (ESG) criteria to their decision-making) can result in reduced or more expensive access to capital and reduced shareholder value.
  • Legal risk: Legal claims can be brought against the company, and it may face criminal charges when workers are hurt or killed.
  • Operational risk: OSH incidents and associated media coverage and/or boycotts may lead to higher costs and/or disruption of business continuity. Companies may respond by terminating supplier contracts and/or directing sourcing activities to lower-risk countries. Another example is the operational risk of interrupted deliveries because of COVID-related factory closures or shortcomings in the supply chain due to lax safety and health management.

Impacts on Human Rights

Poor occupational safety and health has the potential to impact a range of human rights[1], including but not limited to:

  • Right to life and physical security (UDHR, Article 3): This article of the Universal Declaration affirms the right to life, liberty and security of the person. Poor OSH practices can affect workers’ physical security and, in the worst cases, affect the fundamental right to life.
  • Right to health (UDHR, Article 25, ICESCR, Article 12): These provisions guarantee the right of everyone to the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health, which is explicitly connected to the improvement of “industrial hygiene” and the prevention and treatment of occupational diseases. The right to health can be compromised by an unhealthy or dangerous working environment. Both one-off accidents or long-term working conditions can affect a person’s health and well-being, including mental health.
  • Right to work (UDHR, Article 23; ICESCR, Article 7): The entitlement of everyone to safe and healthy working conditions is also considered an integral part of the right to work, which encompasses also the right to enjoy just and favourable conditions of work. This requires putting in place preventive measures in respect of occupational accidents and diseases.
Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)

The following SDG targets relate to safety and health:

  • Goal 3 (“Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages”), Target 3.9: By 2030, substantially reduce the number of deaths and illnesses from hazardous chemicals and air, water, and soil pollution and contamination.
  • Goal 8 (“Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all”), Target 8.8: Protect labour rights and promote safe and secure working environments of all workers, including migrant workers, particularly women migrants, and those in precarious employment.
  • Goal 16 (“Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels”), Target 16.6: Develop effective, accountable and transparent institutions at all levels.

Key Resources

The following resources provide further information on how businesses can address occupational safety and health risks in their operations and supply chains:

  • ILO and United Nations Global Compact, Nine Business Practices for Improving Safety and Health Through Supply Chains and Building a Culture of Prevention and Protection: This report identifies practices that businesses can implement to advance decent work and improve occupational safety and health globally, especially when operating in countries with deficient national safety and health and employment injury protection schemes.
  • ILO, Occupational Safety and Health in Global Value Chains Starterkit: This tool provides guidance on how to map drivers and constraints for OSH improvements integrating safety and health approaches throughout the value chain, and provides case studies on the agriculture and garment industry.
  • ISO, 45001: Occupational Health and Safety Standard: The first international standard on safety and health, which builds on OHSAS18001 and is structured in a similar way as other ISO management systems (such as ISO 14001 or ISO 9001).
  1. By introducing the due diligence-based corporate responsibility to respect human rights, the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs) shift the focus from impacts on businesses to impacts on human rights. Further information on UNGPs is included in section ‘Due Diligence Considerations’.