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Occupational health 

Occupational health
Chapter:
Occupational health
Author(s):

David Koh

and Dean Baker

DOI:
10.1093/med/9780199218707.003.0054
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date: 19 June 2019

Workers constitute a large and important group, accounting for up to half of the world’s population. Occupational health, which involves the ‘promotion and maintenance of the highest degree of physical, mental, and social well-being of workers in all occupations’ is thus an important component of public health practice.

Work-related injuries and illnesses are estimated to kill 2.2 million people worldwide each year. Globally, there are about 270 million occupational accidents and 170 million victims of work-related illnesses annually. Many cases are unrecognized or not reported. The overall economic losses from work-related injuries and illnesses account for approximately 4 per cent of the world’s GNP.

At the workplace, workers may suffer from occupational diseases which may affect almost all organ systems, and are caused by exposure to specific hazards at the workplace; work-related diseases with ‘multifactorial’ aetiology, where factors in the work environment may play a role, together with other risk factors in the development or aggravation of such diseases, and/or general diseases affecting the working population.

Disease prevention and health promotion in the workforce begin with assessment of the risk of work, and recognition of vulnerable populations including, for example, workers in developing nations, migrant workers, child labour, women workers, or impaired workers. Managing the risks of work may be via primary prevention including elimination of the hazard or substitution with a safer alternative, engineering controls, redesign of the work station or process, administrative controls, education of workers, improved and safer work practices, use of personal protective equipment, good personal hygiene practices, and pre-employment or pre-placement examinations; secondary prevention including periodic health monitoring, detection of evidence of excessive exposure, biological tests of excessive exposure or early effect, and removal of the worker from further exposure; and/or tertiary prevention including planning for emergency response, rehabilitation and return to work, workers compensation. Health promotion at the workplace—which includes promoting healthy lifestyles and community action for health, and creation of conditions that make it possible to live a healthy life—is also important.

Increasingly, occupational health practice has evolved to encompass environmental health issues. Hence the term occupational and environmental health might more accurately describe this important aspect of public health.

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