Every minute, a person dies from exposure to toxic substances

Ahead of World Day for Safety and Health at Work, the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights and hazardous substances and wastes, Baskut Tuncak, urged the global community to do more to protect workers from exposure to hazardous substances and chemicals. “Every minute, a person dies from exposure to toxic substances at work. In addition to deaths directly linked to toxic substances, 2.3 million workers around the world suffer from occupational accidents and work-related diseases every year. We should, and can, stop this preventable disaster,” the expert emphasized.

“Workers and their families are often invisible victims, paying too high a price for many of the comforts and conveniences of modern society,” said Mr. Tuncak.

Recent projections by the UN Environment Program (UNEP) indicate that production and use of chemicals around the world are set to increase dramatically in the next five years, requiring increased vigilance of businesses and governments to protect workers from hazardous substances. Toxic substances present a huge occupational risk for workers in virtually every industrial sector, including mining, manufacturing, construction and agriculture. These toxic substances can cause cancer, damage the reproductive and nervous systems, or cause other adverse effects that may not be visible for years, if not decades, after exposure.

“Under international human rights law, States have an obligation to realize the right to safe and healthy working conditions. Workers who may be exposed to hazardous substances have the right to be properly informed, trained and protected. Workers also have the right to refuse to work in toxic environments, which should be guaranteed without fear of reprisal,” stressed the independent human rights expert.

“Workers whose rights have been violated have a right to an effective remedy under international human rights law,” Mr. Tuncak said. “Unfortunately, workers who are harmed by hazardous substances are often unable to access an effective remedy. Prevention and precaution are essential to protecting workers’ rights.”

“Businesses have the responsibility to respect these rights and play a crucial role in the protection of workers. We need concerted efforts by both Governments and businesses to adopt stronger protective and preventive measures that will keep workers from getting injured, sick, or even dying from the effects of toxic substances.”

“Protecting workers is not only a legal and moral duty, but also an economically profitable choice,” the expert underscored. “Occupation-related diseases cause major economic losses for enterprises and societies. An estimated 4 per cent of the global gross domestic product (GDP), equivalent to USD $ 2.8 trillion, is lost annually from costs related to missed working time, treatment of occupational injuries and diseases, compensation, rehabilitation and interruptions in production,” the expert highlighted.

The annual World Day for Safety and Health at Work on 28 April promotes the prevention of occupational accidents and diseases globally. The 28th of April is also the International Commemoration Day for Dead and Injured Workers organized worldwide by the trade union movement since 1996. Its purpose is to honour the memory of victims of occupational accidents and diseases by organizing worldwide mobilizations and awareness campaigns on this date.