The UN Special Rapporteur on hazardous substances and wastes, Baskut Tuncak, has presented a report containing 15 principles to end the exploitation of workers through their exposure to hazardous substances.
In an address to the Human Rights Council, Tuncak urged States and businesses to implement the 15 principles intended to help governments, businesses and others to protect workers from toxic exposure in and around the workplace and to provide remedies for violations of their rights.
“For too long, workers have been exploited by relentless exposure to a toxic cocktail of substances. They are exposed to deadly and debilitating industrial chemicals and pesticides, among other hazardous substances,” said Tuncak.
“Millions of workers continue to be forced to make the abhorrent choice between their health and their income, and millions more are poisoned without their knowledge or consent.
“Legally permissible exposure levels for occupational exposure, if they exist, are often hundreds if not thousands of times higher than what is considered acceptable for the protection of health,” said Tuncak.
“Risk assessments of exposure, when conducted, are often based on incomplete knowledge or false assumptions, resulting in misleading assurances of safety and widespread impact on workers’ health. Processes for improving standards of protection from exposure continue to be deliberately delayed for years, if not decades, resulting in countless premature deaths.”
According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), more than 2.7 million workers around the world die from unsafe or unhealthy working conditions each year. Over 80% of the deaths are from occupational diseases. Approximately half of this figure comes from exposure to toxic chemicals, pesticides, radiation and other hazardous substances, and this may be underestimated.
The Special Rapporteur noted the crisis facing workers most vulnerable to exploitation, including the poor, children and women, as well as migrant, temporary and informal workers. He highlighted cases illustrating the devastating impact on children born to women who were inadequately protected from chemicals that are toxic to development or reproduction. “Everyone must be protected from exposure to toxic substances at work,” he said.
The Special Rapporteur reiterated a previous call by UN experts for the ILO to urgently include occupational safety and health as one of its fundamental principles and rights at work. While the ILO has included many international human rights as those it considers “fundamental”, safety and health have not been included. Safe and healthy working conditions have been recognised globally by the UN as a human right since 1966. The issue should be considered by the ILO Governing Body in October 2019.