When listing the world's leading causes of death, a litany of chronic diseases is what traditionally comes to mind. However, one of the world's largest killers garners very little attention and receives no placing in the World Health Organisation's top 10 causes of death, despite posting figures higher than HIV/ Aids. This lack of awareness is what led more than 4000 experts representing 141 countries to convene in Frankfurt to lay out a vision for tackling the global problem of work fatalities.
The 20th world congress on safety and health at work centres its discussions on ensuring safer and healthier workplaces for employees across the globe, including the ambitious aim of reducing the total number fatalities to zero. Director general of the international labour organisation Guy Ryder, who spoke at the congress' opening ceremony, told attendees that, "Work claims more victims around the world than does war." He said that "an estimated 2.3 million workers die every year from occupational accidents and diseases and that is why I think it is so important that this conference takes this vision of zero fatalities and fashions it into a permanent culture of prevention." In addition to these fatalities, there are more than 850,000 occupational accidents occurring daily, with many having consequences resulting from injury.
"An estimated 2.3 million workers die every year from occupational accidents and diseases"-Guy Ryder
The direct and indirect worldwide costs of occupational accidents and illness have been estimated at €2.13 trillion. "These figures are unacceptable," Said on the global radar. Clearly, there is still much to be done. Serious occupational accidents are, firstly, human tragedies, but economies and society also pay a high price. The right to a safe and healthy workplace is a basic human right - a right to be respected at every level of development and in different economic conditions. Respecting this human right is an obligation - as well as a condition for sustainable economic development. Prevention is possible, it is necessary and it pays."
Alexander Gunkel, from the international organisation of employers, also raised the issue worker's mental wellbeing. "The mental health of workers is just as important as their physical health. If they're not healthy mentally, they're not going to perform as well and productivity will suffer along with competitiveness." Gunkel also warned that "this is something that employers are not interested in", stressing that "if there are any problems in that sphere, accidents occur more frequently".
President of the international social security association Errol Frank Stoové pointed to the "remarkable socioeconomic benefits" of investing in risk prevention, adding that a recent study by his organisation showed an average return on investment of more than double. "However, with a dramatically changing world of work," said Stoové, "the health and wellbeing of workers remain a concern, in particular due to mental and ergonomic strain. This requires that we develop new, integrated strategies for prevention, which connect the safety, health and wellbeing of the individual."
According to Joachim Breuer, the managing director of German social accident insurance (DGUV), the possibility of reducing total work fatalities to zero is "feasible". He cited occupational figures from the DGUV which show that, "A hundred years ago in Germany there were 10,000 deaths a year at work. Last year the figure was less than 500 deaths for the first time." Germany has also managed to reduce the number of reportable accidents by half within the last 20 years.
Walter Eichendorf, president of the 2014 world congress, underlined key aims of the event in Frankfurt, stressing that, "Solutions to occupational safety problems are being developed worldwide. There are examples of best practice, with measures being tested and evaluated in the most diverse of countries. The exchange of ideas at the world congress prevents anyone from having to start again from zero."