A shocking report signals it’s time for a war on work, writes Tom Hodgkinson
On 17 September the World Health Organisation and International Labour Organisation put out a press release which was not widely reported but which, I think, points to one of the most troubling issues of our times.
The WHO and ILO announced that, according to their research, nearly two million people are killed by their job every year around the world.
We should pause for a moment to consider the enormity of that figure when compared to other causes of death. War kills an average of 86,000 a year, and illegal drugs around 250,000. In 2020 Covid killed 1.8 million people, according to WHO figures.
That means work is six times more deadly than war and drugs combined and is about on a level with Covid. It’s a workdemic.
Yet we see no war on work, no anti-work charities, no media outcry, no shutdowns, no massive public health programmes designed to reduce hours and improve conditions in work.
Nasty bits of work
Might this be because the deadly jobs, the dirty work performed hidden from sight – like the slaughterhouse workers, the miners and the carers – are the ones that support our comfortable lifestyle, the ones which, in short, prop up the capitalist system, not to mention the greed of shareholders?
It’s an inconvenient reality that no one wants to confront. Workplace exposure to air pollution, for example, in factories and oil refineries and so on, was responsible for 450,000 deaths.
As Orwell wrote: “In the metabolism of the Western world the coal-miner is second in importance only to the man who ploughs the soil. He is a sort of grimy caryatid upon whose shoulders nearly everything that is not grimy is supported.”
So we should thank WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who commented:
“It’s shocking to see so many people literally being killed by their jobs. Our report is a wake-up call to countries and businesses to improve and protect the health and safety of workers by honouring their commitments to provide universal coverage of occupational health and safety services.”
Of these premature deaths, most were caused by overwork, said the WHO: “Heart disease and stroke attributable to exposure to long working hours” caused 750,000 deaths. “This study established long working hours as the risk factor with the largest work-related disease burden.”
Shockingly, the situation is growing worse, not better. The report says that in the period 2000 to 2016, “deaths from heart disease and stroke associated with exposure to long working hours rose by 41 and 19 per cent respectively. This reflects an increasing trend in this relatively new and psychosocial occupational risk factor.” Read the full press release here.
Death by work is a scandal which we need to address urgently.
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Complete agreement here – and one cause of work-related death hasn’t been mentioned: suicides due to overwork, stress, bullying and precariousness. In France former bosses of a telecom operator were sent to prison for manslaughter after several employees had taken their lives amidst “robust” reorganisations. Same happened at the postal service La Poste.
One of my grandfathers died at 52 from a heart attack at work so this resonates with me – I have stopped work at 59 and could not be happier.
Live well and long.