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Definition & Legal Instruments


According to the ILO, safety and health in the workplace is defined as “the discipline dealing with the prevention of work-related injuries and diseases, as well as the protection and promotion of the health of workers”, where health “encompasses the social, mental and physical well-being of workers”.

The WHO has summarized the various definitions of occupational safety and health and characterizes OSH practice as activities that:

  • Protect and promote the health of workers by preventing and controlling diseases and accidents and by eliminating occupational factors and conditions hazardous to safety and health at work
  • Develop and promote healthy and safe work, work environments and work organizations
  • Enhance the physical, mental and social well-being of workers and supports the maintenance and development of working capacity, as well as professional and social development at work
  • Enable workers to conduct socially and economically productive lives, while contributing positively to sustainable development

Occupational safety and health is an integral part of individuals having ‘decent work’, which is defined by the ILO as the “right to productive work in conditions of freedom, equity, security and human dignity”. The ILO states that work can “only be decent if it is safe and healthy”. OSH programmes should therefore provide healthy and safe working conditions for all workers, which includes making special arrangements or provisions for employees with additional needs due to disability or other personal circumstance, such as pregnancy or mental illness. However, there is no zero-risk working environment. That is why OSH should also cover the protection, in the form of compensation and access to medical care, available to workers or their families in the case of an occupational accident or disease

Sources of Occupational Injuries

  • Accidents: Accidents can vary depending on the workplace and the nature of the incident. However, common accidents in the workplace can include slips, trips and falls, cuts and lacerations, vehicle accidents and collisions, and burns.
  • Exposure to hazards and hazardous substances: Exposure to hazards can cause a one-off incident (for instance a fall from height), or longer-term issues, such as respiratory disease from inhaling hazardous chemicals over a period of time. Some of the most common hazards include exposure to chemicals, metal elements, dust, silica, loud noise, bright light and gases. Hazardous substances are usually defined in law in the country of operation, but international guidance on the recognition of occupational diseases due to exposure to hazardous substances also exists and is provided by ILO.
  • Musculoskeletal disorders and repetitive strain injuries: These injuries occur from manual handling of objects at work. This can range from lifting heavy loads to sitting at a computer for long periods of time. Repetitive motions can also cause long-term injuries such as damage to nerves, joints and muscles if not managed correctly.
  • Communicable diseases: Workers risk contracting communicable diseases due to working conditions, such as outdoor work or relocation for employment. Some of the most common and burdensome communicable diseases include malaria, tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS and — since 2019 — COVID-19. There may be other incidences of localized communicable diseases, such as stomach viruses or flu, where workers are close together or share equipment and spaces.
  • Mental ill-health: Mental conditions can stem from many causes, but several workplace factors may contribute to or trigger these conditions. Stress and anxiety can result from workplace situations such as excessive working hours, unsafe conditions or bullying in the workplace.

Legal Instruments

ILO Conventions

The ILO has adopted more than 40 standards specifically dealing with occupational safety and health, as well as over 40 Codes of Practice that address OSH across a range of industries. Key instruments on occupational safety and health include the following:

Businesses can look to conventions relevant to their industry for guidance on what countries that ratified these conventions should be implementing, and what would be expected of businesses. Businesses can also consult ILO Codes of Practice specific to different industries, for example:

Other Relevant ILO Conventions on Safety and Health

ILO conventions on safety and health in particular branches of economic activity include the following:

There are also standards and conventions that address particular working situations, such as how to deal with harmful chemicals or accidents. Key ones include:

Complementing the above conventions, the ILO has also adopted specific instruments on the protection that workers should benefit against work-related injury:

Other Legal Instruments

The UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs) set the global standard regarding the responsibility of business to respect human rights in their operations and across their value chains. The Guiding Principles call upon States to consider a smart mix of measures — national and international, mandatory and voluntary — to foster business respect for human rights.

Domestic Legislation

OSH laws differ around the world, with different nations implementing and enforcing their own laws. There are also regional laws and regulations to consider, such as European Union directives on safety and health at work. OSH requirements also differ dramatically between different industries and employment types depending on the risks that the workers face and the activities undertaken. Businesses should check the safety and health laws in their countries of operation and require that suppliers adhere to all safety and health laws in their own countries of operation. For detailed information on country legislation, businesses can refer to ILO’s LEGOSH and NORMLEX database, which provides information on country ratifications of ILO conventions and links to national legislation.

Trends towards human rights due diligence legislation for businesses have been gaining momentum in recent years. Much of the legislation also includes OSH criteria for workers in companies’ own operations and their supply chains. Examples of this include the French Corporate Duty of Vigilance Law and the German Act on Corporate Due Diligence Obligations in Supply Chains. Also, the European Commission is working on legislation to make human rights and environmental due diligence mandatory for companies. It is expected that similar legislation will be enacted in other countries and regions in the near future.

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