The January 2, 2006 explosion in West Virginia’s Sago Mine is a graphic reminder of how someone can leave for work one morning not knowing whether it will be his or her last. News reports after the tragedy indicated that in the past two years, the mine was given 273 safety violation citations, and almost a third were classified as “significant and substantial” by the Department of Labor’s Mine Safety and Health Administration. Numerous citations were for problems that could contribute to accidental explosions or the collapse of mine tunnels.
This tragic scenario of worker fatalities is not all that uncommon, according to a recent report entitled Decent Work-Safe Work prepared by the United Nations International Labor Office. The report concluded that at least 2.2 million people die annually from work-related accidents or illness worldwide. Estimates based on statistics gathered from around the world show a 10 percent increase in worker fatalities from 1998 to 2001, the last year such statistics were collected. Accidents decreased slightly in industrialized countries. However, the number of work-related deaths rose in Asia and other developing nations in such industries as mining, farming and construction.
Researchers cited rapid economic development and increased pressures on business to compete globally as the chief reasons for the significant rise in the number of deaths. On the bright side, the report also noted that businesses around the world are beginning to realize that good safety practices make sound business sense. Not only does a worker fatality affect the worker and his family, it affects the productivity and profitability of the business itself and, over the long-term, diminished productivity and profitability negatively impact society. In other words, the notion of corporate citizenship, or the corporation becoming accountable to society at large for its actions, is beginning to take hold in the minds of the management running companies.
There is still a long way to go before safety and health on the job reaches acceptable levels. The researchers discovered that reporting systems and coverage of occupational safety and health in many developing nations is poor and quite often deteriorating even further. Men are especially vulnerable to dying before age 65 because of accidents, lung disease and work-related cancers. Women, on the other hand, suffer from work-related communicable diseases, psychosocial factors and long-term musculoskeletal disorders. Workers ranging in age from 15 to 24 are less likely to suffer fatal occupational accidents than their older colleagues. Workers aged 55 and older are more likely to die in work related accidents and suffer from bad health.
The Decent Work-Safe Work report concluded with a call to action on international, national, regional and enterprise levels. It emphasized that decent work must be safe work and that occupational safety and health were imperative to maintaining the dignity of all workers.