Occupational health and safety is concerned with the safety, health and welfare of employees at work. The ILO Constitution establishes the principle that ‘workers must be protected from sickness, disease and injury arising from their employment’. Yet the reality is often very different. The ILO estimates 2.78 million work-related deaths are recorded every year, of which 2.4 million are related to occupational diseases. An occupational disease is caused by the work environment or work activities. The International Labour Organisation (ILO) has published a list of occupational diseases in 2010.
Death and sickness on the workfloor is often preventable through the implementation of sound prevention, reporting and inspection practices. The ILO has adopted over 40 standards dealing with occupational health and safety, as well as more than 40 Codes of Practice. This means that almost half of ILO instruments deal directly or indirectly with occupational health and safety issues.
In 1981, the ILO adopted the Occupational Safety and Health Convention (No. 155). This convention compels Member states to ‘formulate, implement and periodically review a coherent national policy on occupational safety, occupational health and the working environment’. The convention also forces Member states to penalise violations of these laws and regulations. The goal of this convention is repeated in the Promotional Framework for Occupational Safety and Health Convention (No. 187) and the Occupational Health Services Convention (No. 161).
The ILO has also adopted many conventions aimed at specific branches, such as Commerce and Offices, Dock Work, Construction, Mines and Agriculture. There are also many ILO Conventions that protect workers against specific risks or diseases, such as Radiation, Cancer, Air Pollution, Noise and Vibration, Asbestos and Dangerous Chemicals.
Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work
At its 110th Session in 2022, the General Conference of the ILO amended paragraph 2 of the The ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work. After the words “the elimination of discrimination in respect of CAG/D.4 2 employment and occupation”, the words “and (e) a safe and healthy working environment” were added. This means the right to occupational health and safety is now one of the five fundamental labour rights of the ILO. Since the Occupational Safety and Health Convention, 1981 (No. 155) and the Promotional Framework for Occupational Safety and Health Convention, 2006 (No. 187) are now fundamental Conventions within the meaning of the ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work, all member states must respect and promote this principle and right, whether or not they have ratified the relevant Conventions.
The ILO has included the right to a safe and healthy working environment in its most fundamental declarations, unlike the United Nations. The right to occupational health and safety is not mentioned in the United Nations Global Compact or the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. However, the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises state that enterprises should “Take adequate steps to ensure occupational health and safety in their operations”.
Furthermore, the principle of occupational health and safety holds an important place in many regional human rights conventions. For example, article 4 of the European Social Charter guarantees all workers ‘the right to safe and healthy working conditions’.