September 23, 2021

WHO and ILO: Air Pollution Among Leading Causes of Work-Related Deaths in 2016

Long working hours and workplace exposure to air pollution were the two occupational risk factors with the largest number of attributable work-related deaths in 2016, according to a joint report published in September by the World Health Organization and the International Labor Organization. Of the 1.88 million deaths from work-related diseases and injuries that year, WHO and ILO estimate that nearly 745,000 deaths were linked to long working hours—55 or more hours per week—and approximately 450,000 deaths were linked to occupational exposure to particulate matter, gases, and fumes. The organizations’ report states that occupational injuries—the risk factor with the third-largest number of attributable deaths—caused around 360,000 worker deaths. The WHO/ILO “joint estimates” report is the first of its kind and is intended to be used for the “global monitoring of exposure to occupational risk factors and work-related burden of disease and injury.” WHO and ILO urge policymakers to use the report to identify, plan, implement, and evaluate actions to improve workers’ health and prevent exposure to occupational risk factors and related diseases and injuries.

The joint estimates report also examines the work-related burden of deaths associated with health outcomes. According to the report, the majority of work-related deaths were due to respiratory and cardiovascular disease—chronic obstructive pulmonary disease caused approximately 450,000 deaths, stroke caused nearly 400,000 deaths, and ischemic heart disease was the cause of close to 350,000 deaths. The report’s authors note that a “disproportionately large” number of work-related deaths occurred in workers in Africa, southeast Asia, and the western Pacific region as well as among male workers and people of older age groups.

“Total work-related burden of disease is likely substantially larger, as health loss from several other occupational risk factors must still be quantified in the future,” ILO’s press release states. “Moreover, the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic will add another dimension to this burden to be captured in future estimates.”

A PDF of the WHO/ILO Joint Estimates of the Work-Related Burden of Disease and Injury, 2000–2016: Global Monitoring Report is available from ILO’s website.

Related: Working 55 or more hours per week is associated with an estimated 35 percent higher risk of stroke and a 17 percent higher risk of dying from heart disease, according to an earlier analysis by WHO and ILO published in the journal Environment International.