Occupational Health and Safety – Meaning, Rationale


Occupational health and safety is a discipline with a broad scope involving many specialized fields. In its broadest sense, it should aim at:

  • the promotion and maintenance of the highest degree of physical, mental and social well-being of workers in all occupations;
  • the prevention among workers of adverse effects on health caused by their working conditions;
  • the protection of workers in their employment from risks resulting from factors adverse to health;
  • the placing and maintenance of workers in an occupational environment adapted to physical and mental needs;
  • the adaptation of work to humans.
  • In other words, occupational health and safety encompass the social, mental and physical well-being of workers, which is the “whole person”.

Poor working conditions affect worker health and safety

  • Poor working conditions of any type have the potential to affect a worker’s health and safety.
  • Unhealthy or unsafe working conditions are not limited to factories — they can be found anywhere, whether the workplace is indoors or outdoors. For many workers, such as agricultural workers or miners, the workplace is “outdoors” and can pose many health and safety hazards.
  • Poor working conditions can also affect the environment workers live in, since the working and living environments are the same for many workers. This means that occupational hazards can have harmful effects on workers, their families, and other people in the community, as well as on the physical environment around the workplace.
  • A classic example is the use of pesticides in agricultural work. Workers can be exposed to toxic chemicals in a number of ways when spraying pesticides: they can inhale the chemicals during and after spraying, the chemicals can be absorbed through the skin, and the workers can ingest the chemicals if they eat, drink, or smoke without first washing their hands, or if drinking water has become contaminated with the chemicals. The workers’ families can also be exposed in a number of ways: they can inhale the pesticides which may linger in the air, they can drink contaminated water, or they can be exposed to residues which may be on the worker’s clothes. Other people in the community can all be exposed in the same ways as well. When the chemicals get absorbed into the soil or leach into groundwater supplies, the adverse effects on the natural environment can be permanent.

Benefits of Effective Safety and Health Program

  • Reduce work-related injuries and illnesses
  • Improve morale and productivity
  • Reduce workers’ compensation costs

Why is occupational health and safety important? 

  • Work plays a central role in people’s lives, since most workers spend at least eight hours a day in the workplace, whether it is on a plantation, in an office, factory, etc. Therefore, work environments should be safe and healthy. Yet this is not the case for many workers.
  • Every day workers all over the world are faced with a multitude of health hazards, such as:
  • –dusts;–gases;

    –noise;



    –vibration;

    –extreme temperatures.

Costs of occupational injury/disease

  • For workers some of the direct costsof an injury or illness are:

–the pain and suffering of the injury or illness;

–the loss of income;

–the possible loss of a job;

–health-care costs.

  • The costs to employers
  • Occupational accidents or illnesses are also estimated to be enormous. For a small business, the cost of even one accident can be a financial disaster. For employers, some of the direct costs are:
  • payment for work not performed;
  • medical and compensation payments;
  • repair or replacement of damaged machinery and equipment;
  • reduction or a temporary halt in production;
  • increased training expenses and administration costs;
  • possible reduction in the quality of work;
  • negative effect on morale in other workers.

Some of the indirect costs for employers are:

  • the injured/ill worker has to be replaced;
  • a new worker has to be trained and given time to adjust;
  • it takes time before the new worker is producing at the rate of the original worker;
  • time must be devoted to obligatory investigations, to the writing of reports and filling out of forms;
  • accidents often arouse the concern of fellow workers and influence labour relations in a negative way;
  • poor health and safety conditions in the workplace can also result in poor public relations.
  • Overall, the costs of most work-related accidents or illnesses to workers and their families and to employers are very high.

Health and safety programs

  • For all of the reasons given above, it is crucial that employers, workers, and unions are committed to health and safety and that:
  • workplace hazards are controlled – at the source whenever possible;
  • records of any exposure are maintained for many years;
  • both workers and employers are informed about health and safety risks in the workplace;
  • there is an active and effective health and safety committee that includes both workers and management;
  • worker health and safety efforts are ongoing.
  • Occupational health and safety encompass the social, mental and physical well-being of workers in all occupations.
  • Poor working conditions have the potential to affect a worker’s health and safety.
  • Unhealthy or unsafe working conditions can be found anywhere, whether the workplace is indoors or outdoors.
  • Employers have a moral and often legal responsibility to protect workers.
  • Work-related accidents and diseases are common in all parts of the world and often have many direct and indirect negative consequences for workers and their families. A single accident or illness can mean enormous financial loss to both workers and employers.
  • Effective workplace health and safety programmes can help to save the lives of workers by reducing hazards and their consequences. Effective programmes can also have positive effects on both worker morale and productivity and can save employers a great deal of money.

The extent of the problem worldwide

A. Accidents

  • In general, health and safety in the workplace have improved in most industrialized countries over the past 20 to 30 years. However, the situation in developing countries is relatively unclear largely because of inadequate accident and disease recognition, record-keeping and reporting mechanisms.
  • It is estimated that at least 250 million occupational accidents occur every year worldwide. 335,000 of these accidents are fatal (result in death). (Since many countries do not have accurate record-keeping and reporting mechanisms, it can be assumed that the real figures are much higher than this.) The number of fatal accidents is much higher in developing countries than in industrialized ones.

B. Diseases

  • Some occupational diseases have been recognized for many years, and affect workers in different ways depending on the nature of the hazard, the route of exposure, the dose, etc. Some well known occupational diseases include:
  • asbestosis (caused by asbestos, which is common in insulation, automobile brake linings, etc.)
  • silicosis (caused by silica, which is common in mining, sandblasting, etc.);
  • lead poisoning (caused by lead, which is common in battery plants, paint factories, etc.);
  • and noise-induced hearing loss (caused by noise, which is common in many workplaces, including airports, and workplaces where noisy machines, such as presses or drills, etc. are used).
  • There are also a number of potentially crippling health problems that can be associated with poor working conditions, including:–heart disease;–musculoskeletal disorders such as permanent back injuries or muscle disorders;

    –allergies;

    –reproductive problems;

    –stress-related disorders.

  • There are at least 250 million occupational accidents every year worldwide, at least 335,000 of which result in death.
  • Developing countries have more fatal accidents than industrialized nations, emphasizing the need for health and safety education programs that focus on prevention.
  • Some occupational diseases have been recognized for many years and affect workers in different ways. Such diseases are still problems in all parts of the world.
  • The numbers of work-related diseases in developing countries are much higher in reality than the numbers that are reported.
  • The number of cases and types of occupational diseases are increasing in both developing and industrialized countries.
  • It is often difficult to identify the cause of both occupational accidents and diseases.

Identifying the cause of occupational disease

  • The cause of work-related diseases is very often difficult to determine. One factor is the latency period (the fact that it may take years before the disease produces an obvious effect on the worker’s health).
  • By the time the disease is identified, it may be too late to do anything about it or to find out what hazards the worker was exposed to in the past. Other factors such as changing jobs, or personal behaviors (such as smoking tobacco or drinking alcohol) further increase the difficulty of linking workplace exposure to a disease outcome.
  • Although more is understood now about some occupational hazards than in the past, every year new chemicals and new technologies are being introduced which present new and often unknown hazards to both workers and the community. These new and unknown hazards present great challenges to workers, employers, educators, and scientists, that is to everyone concerned about workers’ health and the effects that hazardous agents have on the environment.

C. The range of hazards

  • There is an unlimited number of hazards that can be found in almost any workplace. There are obvious unsafe working conditions, such as unguarded machinery, slippery floors or inadequate fire precautions, but there are also a number of categories of insidious hazards (that is, those hazards that are dangerous but which may not be obvious) including:
  • chemical hazards, arising from liquids, solids, dusts, fumes, vapours and gases;
  • physical hazards, such as noise, vibration, unsatisfactory lighting, radiation and extreme temperatures;
  • biological hazards, such as bacteria, viruses, infectious waste and infestations;
  • psychological hazards resulting from stress and strain;
  • hazards associated with the non-application of ergonomic principles, for example badly designed machinery, mechanical devices and tools used by workers, improper seating and workstation design, or poorly designed work practices.