Global Burden of Occupational Injury and Illness

Workplace safety is a global issue and huge cost on the world economy. However investing in safety produces both a financial benefit as well as a social benefit.

May’s edition of the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Hygiene (2014), 11, 326-337, has an interesting article by Takala et al. titled “Global Estimates of the Burden of Injury and Illness at Work in 2012

This article reviews the global cost of occupational illness and injury. Across the globe about 5 to 7% of all fatalities are work related illnesses and injuries; a lower percentage in developing countries due to their higher non-work related death rate. The researchers collected data from across the globe and adjusted it for the different collection criteria to be able to make comparisons. Here are a couple of statistics to whet the appetite:

  • Globally 2.3 million deaths are work related, or these 318,000 are due to injury and 2,022,000 due to disease.
  • The biggest disease killers are work related cancer coming in at 32% of all deaths. 8.4% of all cancers are attributable to work related causes.

On the macroeconomic scale, the impact of occupational illness and injuries is huge, costing $250 Billion in the US alone  (1.8% of GDP). In Australia the numbers was $57.5 Billion or 5.9% of GDP, and European countries varied from 2.7% and 6.0 % (Norway). The authors did not say whether the lower US numbers, as a percent of GDP, is due to higher safety standards in the US or a different method of accounting.  Since all these countries are first world affluent industrial nations, the latter is more likely and may be due, for example, to different levels of benefits or sick leave available to those who have been injured on the job.

The authors also found that the cost for occupational injuries was much larger than the amount of money spent on prevention. Additionally, the authors showed a graph from the WSH Institute and World Economic forum Lausanne, Switerland that competitiveness and safety go hand in hand; the lower the number of accidents, the higher the competitiveness.  This graph, copied below, largely speaks for itself.


The same effect has been found at the micro-economic scale level for individual companies. OSHA has long argued the business case for companies to invest in safety with OSHA citing studies that claim that each $1 invested in injury prevention businesses will (on average) receive returns $2 or more.

Furthermore, in the US, the authors found that the savings after an OSHA inspection were substantial, a reduction of 26% from sickness and injury costs, and saving employers $6 billion nationwide. In view of the small fines that OSHA usually levies, many companies may benefit financially from an OSHA inspection with fines if it improves their work safety focus.

As this article shows, workplace safety is an issue across the world. This study emphasizes the importance that employers invest in safety, by assessing the risks in the workplace, upgrading engineering controls, and improving work practices and training to make the workplace safety. Investing in safety is a win-win situation, the company wins with a more healthy balance sheet and the employees win with a reduction in the much more tangible pain and suffering. 

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