Definition of occupational health and the size of the problem

Handling of hot iron sticks Handling hot iron sticks can be very dangerous. © G. Tjalvin

a) Prevention is very important

Some serious examples of what may happen in certain work places if the working conditions are not optimal have been shown to you now. Many other, different examples from different work places will be illustrated for you later in this course. The existence of the problems may seem depressing. However, one exciting thing is that these types of injuries and diseases can be prevented! We have a mission to do so in occupational health; to reduce the problems resulting from injuries, diseases and deaths that are work place-related.

b) Definition

Actually, occupational health as a discipline includes even more; it is not only the issue of avoiding and reducing serious injuries and diseases, but also to work to campaign for improving the general well-being of workers in a work place. There are several definitions of occupational health, but the one most commonly used is this one, from WHO and the International Labour Organization (ILO):


A definiton of occupational health is:
The promotion and maintenance
of the highest degree of physical
mental and social well-being of
workers in all occupations.


This definition gives us a very high aim to work for, but this is the standard we should have; we should work for the highest degree of physical, mental and social well-being of workers in all occupations. You will learn more about different aspects of occupational health in this course, and how to work on these issues. We can improve the world of working life.

c) The size of the problem

Workers represent half the world’s population in the age group 16-67 years, and are the major contributors to economic and social development. However, around the world, millions of men and women are paid to work under poor and hazardous conditions. Despite the availability of effective interventions to prevent many occupational hazards and to protect and promote health at the workplace, large gaps exist between and within countries concerning the health status of workers and their exposure to occupational risks. More information is given in the report “Workers’ health: Global plan of action 2008-2017” by World Health Organization.

We also have some figures from the International Labour Organization, ILO.


More than 2 million people die
from work-related diseases every year

321 million accidents occur due
to workplace hazards annually

Every 15 seconds, a worker dies from
a work-related accident or disease

Every 15 seconds, 153 workers have
a work-related accident


Worldwide, occupational injuries and diseases continue to be the leading cause of work-related deaths. The situation is unacceptable.

The inadequate prevention of occupational diseases has profound negative effects not only on workers and their families but also on society at large due to the tremendous costs that it generates; particularly, in terms of loss of productivity and burdening of social security systems.

In many developing countries, death rates among workers are higher than in industrialized countries, and work-related injuries and diseases are largely un-documented. Global competition, an expanding labour market and rapid changes in all aspects of work creates an increasing need for labor protection, especially in developing countries. While globally much is known about occupational health, implementation measures are lacking in many poor countries, probably due to lack of competence and political will.  

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This article is from the free online course:

Occupational Health in Developing Countries

University of Bergen