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Deaths due to work-related diseases surged 26% in a decade, according to new global data

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November 29, 2023
By OHS Canada

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There has been a global surge in the number of deaths linked to work-related diseases, according to new research, though the number of occupational injuries is on the decline.

Between 2011 and 2019, there was a 26% increase in mortality linked to occupational diseases. The study was completed by researchers from Tampere University in Finland and the International Commission on Occupational Health (ICOH) in Italy.

“The burden of work-related diseases is a major global health challenge. Updated estimates are needed to understand the trends in the work-related burden of diseases, working conditions and their impact on workers’ health as well as to identify where the current efforts fall short,” said Subas Neupane, senior research fellow at Tampere University.

The study investigated the burden in terms of deaths, disability-adjusted life years (DALYs) and economic loss as a percentage of the total gross domestic product (GDP). As a new addition, the researchers also analyzed the DALYs attributable to psychosocial exposures at work.

2.9 million deaths linked to work

Work-related deaths and DALYs estimates for a group of seven major diseases covering 120 risk-outcome pairs attributable to work were calculated at the global and WHO regional levels, and at the country level of 181 countries. The results show that, in 2019, 2.9 million deaths were attributed to work; 2.58 million deaths were due to work-related diseases; and 320,000 deaths to occupational injuries.


“Globally, work-related diseases with a long latency period are increasing while the number of occupational injuries has decreased,” said Jukka Takala, former president of ICOH.

Circulatory diseases, cancer top the list

Work-related circulatory diseases are the major cause of 912,000 deaths globally followed by 843,000 deaths attributed to work-related cancer.


However, in the high-income, American, Eastern Europe and Western Pacific WHO regions, work-related cancer is the biggest disease group. DALYs attributable to work was estimated to be 180 million in 2019. The economic loss was 5.8% of the global GDP. The recently included estimates of psychosocial factors increased the global loss.

The burden of work-related diseases is substantial globally, with a 26% increase from 2.3 million annual deaths in 2011 to 2.9 million in 2019. Likewise, disability-adjusted life years (DALYs) attributable to work have significantly risen by 47%, escalating from 123 million in 2014 to 180 million in 2019.

The researchers explain that this notable increase in DALYs is partly due to the inclusion of the recently introduced component of psychosocial exposures at work.

“There is a considerable regional and country variation in the burden of work-related diseases. A concerted and sustainable global effort to promote health and safety in the workplace is imperative to mitigate the burden of work-related diseases and accidents,” Neupane said.

DALY gives better view of overall burden of disease

As mortality does not give a complete picture of the burden of disease borne by individuals in different populations, the overall burden of disease is assessed using the disability-adjusted life year (DALY) indicator.

DALY combines years of life lost due to premature mortality and years of life lost due to time lived in states of less than full health, or years of healthy life lost due to disability. One DALY represents the loss of one year of full health.

The study was conducted in cooperation with Tampere University, International Commission on Occupational Health (ICOH) and the Finnish Ministry of Social Affairs and Health. The research article was published in Scandinavian Journal of Work, Environment & Health.


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