Long Working Hours Kill More Workers Than Injuries

The biggest killers of working people are strokes and heart disease associated with long working hours – over 55 hours a week.

This is according to a joint report from the World Health Organization (WHO) and International Labour Organization (ILO), the first global comparative risk assessment of the work-related burden of disease, which was released on Friday.

Diseases associated with long working hours accounted for almost 40% of global deaths in  2016, some 750,000 deaths.  People from South East Asia and Western Pacific, men and those over 54 were most at risk.

Workplace injuries were the next biggest cause of worker deaths, accounting for 19.4% of deaths (360,000 deaths) – around half the deaths caused by long working hours. Workers most in danger of injuries were those in the construction, transport, manufacturing and agricultural sectors.

Workplace exposure to air pollution (particulate matter, gases and fumes) was responsible for 450,000 deaths. 

Meanwhile, asbestos exposure caused 11.1% deaths, causing a variety of cancers.

According to the report, 81% of deaths in 2016 were caused by non-communicable diseases (NCDs), the most common being chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (450,000 deaths); stroke (400,000 deaths) and ischaemic heart disease (350,000 deaths). 

“It’s shocking to see so many people literally being killed by their jobs,” said Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General. 

“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.” 

Healthy limits

This report will enable policymakers to track work-related health loss at country, regional and global levels, according to the two bodies.

“These estimates provide important information on the work-related burden of disease, and this information can help to shape policies and practices to create healthier and safer workplaces,” said Guy Ryder, ILO Director-General. 

Each risk factor has a unique set of preventive actions, which are outlined in the monitoring report to guide governments, in consultation with employers and workers. 

Preventing long working hours requires agreement on healthy maximum limits on working time, for example. To reduce workplace exposure to air pollution, dust control, ventilation, and personal protective equipment is recommended. 

“These almost 2 million premature deaths are preventable. Action needs to be taken based on the research available to target the evolving nature of work-related health threats,” said Dr. Maria Neira, Director of the Department of Environment, Climate Change and Health at WHO.

The report notes that total work-related burden of disease is likely substantially larger, as health loss from several other occupational risk factors must still be quantified in the future. Moreover, the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic will add another dimension to this burden to be captured in future estimates.


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