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2008 World Day for Safety and Health at Work

My life, my work, my safe work: Managing risk in the work environment.

Washington, D.C. PAHO HQ.
April 30th, 2008.

Closing remarks
Dr. Mirta Roses, PAHO Director

I would like to thank our special guest, Dr. Devra Davis for kindly accepting our invitation. Thank you to all participants for joining us for the 2008 PAHO World Day for Health and Safety at Work. Although I was not able to personally join today's event due to previous work arrangements, I am familiar with the exemplary work of Dr. Davis. She has been a driving force for numerous years to demonstrate the interconnectedness between our environment and health. Dr. Davis' has been advocating on behalf of millions of workers and communities who are exposed to carcinogens such as tobacco smoke, pesticide, silica, some metals and asbestos, among many others, on a daily basis in their workplace and are consequently at risk of developing work-related cancer.

Since the launch of the PAHO Workers' Health Regional Plan of Action in 1999, several milestones have been attained to help improve the lives and well-being of million of workers, their families, and communities in the Americas. Over the years, there has been an increase in awareness of the role and influence of our environment and workplace environment on our health. This has been possible through the advocacy and work of local, national, and international leaders in the field of occupational and environmental health, such as Dr. Devra Davis. This day provides us with an opportunity to recognize the commitment of the global community that works towards a common goal: improving the health and safety of workers.

We can no longer perceive work environments as a separate identity from our communities. We now know that the various determinants of work significantly influence our health. Good working conditions and healthy workplaces are instrumental for preventing, promoting, and protecting the health of the people of the Americas. We also know that this investment is beneficial to all, as countries with high environmental and occupational standards are characterized with a high quality of life standard and high productivity.

Despite the availability of effective interventions to prevent occupational hazards and to protect and promote health at the workplace, large gaps exist between and within countries with regard to the health status of workers and their exposure to occupational risks.

Adequate employment conditions, as well as safe and healthy workplaces are a powerful leverage tool to reduce this gap and to raise the living standards of the people of the Americas. Those instruments are needed to ensure that the targets set in the Millennium Development Goals are within reach for all.

Environmental and occupational health provides a great venue of collaboration between countries and sectors. This cooperation is especially needed today as the WHO estimates that 25% of the global burden of disease is attributed to occupational and environmental risk factors. In response to the magnitude of the problem, Global Plans have been developed to address workers' health.

PAHO active role in WHO Global Plans

Today, I would like to draw your attention to two WHO Global Plans, in which the Pan American Health Organization is taking an active role. The first one is the WHO Workers' Health Global Plan of Action and the second is the WHO Global Action Plan Against Cancer. The synergy between regional and global priorities aims to align and coordinate our work toward improving the health of individuals, families and countries.

WHO Workers' Health Global Plan of Action (2008-2017)

The WHO Workers' Health Global Plan of Action addresses all aspects of workers' health including primary prevention of occupational hazards, protection and promotion of health at work, employment conditions, and better responses from health systems to workers' health. [The plan focuses on 5 keys objectives: 1) Policies development and implementation; 2) Protect and promote health at the workplace; 3) access to occupational health services; 4) provide and communicate evidence for action and practice; 5) incorporating workers' health into other policies.] In order to reach the objectives of the plan, we will need to use the public health tools of advocacy, policies, education, training, surveillance, and research.

The Workers' Health Plan of Action also calls for national approaches to the prevention of occupational diseases such as work-related cancers. Prevention is key for the region of the Americas as its growing labor force includes a significant proportion of agricultural, construction, mining and textile workers. Workers in these labor sectors are especially vulnerable to exposure to cancer-causing agents at work. Namely, asbestos, silica, benzene, pesticides, and tobacco smoke in the workplace are a significant source of occupational morbidity and mortality in the region.

The plan also encourages the prevention and control of occupational hazards such as the elimination of second-hand tobacco smoke from all indoor workplaces. PAHO is working closely with member countries and encouraging them to ratify and implement the mandates of WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco control, making all public places and workplaces 100% smoke free.

The WHO Workers' Health Global Plan of Action includes activities related to the global campaign for elimination of asbestos-related diseases. Eliminating asbestos from the workplace is an imminent priority. Asbestos is one of the most potent occupational carcinogens as it accounts for approximately 50% of deaths from occupational cancer worldwide. Several countries in our region have demonstrated clear commitment and leadership in this area by adopting national bans on asbestos. This represents an important step in managing risk in the work environment.

Another occupational risk for workers in the region is the exposure to crystalline silica at work. Silica is associated with silicosis, a lung disease, as well as lung cancer. To address this situation, PAHO is currently working with the International Labor Organization and three of our collaborating centers in the US, Chile and Brazil on the the Americas Silicosis Initiative. This comprehensive multi-sectoral partnership aims to build capacity amongst employers to eliminate and reduce occupational exposure to crystalline silica.

Similarly, PAHO has developed collaborations between the ministries of health, agriculture, education, environment, and labor, as well as universities and civil societies in Central American countries afflicted by intensive pesticide use. PLAGSALUD's purpose is to dramatically reduce adverse health effects related pesticide exposure and support the implementation of sustainable agriculture alternatives. This project actively engages leadership in environment, health and labor, therefore demonstrating the type of synergy that is needed to meet the complex challenges of workers' health and occupational exposure to carcinogens.

The Workers Health Plan also asks that countries pay special attention to underserved and vulnerable populations, such as young and older workers, persons with disabilities, and migrant workers, taking into consideration gender aspects.

WHO Global Action Plan Against Cancer.

WHO's Global Action Plan Against Cancer combines the organization's existing strengths and strategies to increase its capacity to face this growing global public health problem. It provides guidance to governments, health providers and other stakeholders on how to prevent and cure this chronic disease as well as care for those whom palliation is the only option.

Cancer control is priority for PAHO

Taking into account the current health situation in the Americas, for PAHO, cancer as part of non communicable diseases is a priority and it is in this context that we are currently up scaling our efforts.

Prevention of occupation cancer is part of the overall PAHO cancer plan

We are aware that we have to address cancer in a comprehensive way which includes primary prevention as well as cure and care. In developing the PAHO plan of action against cancer, we work together across the whole organization in order to achieve the four goals of the plan:

  • To prevent what is preventable
  • To cure what is curable
  • To care for patients with cancer
  • And to monitor cancer burden, cancer risks and interventions to control cancer.

Health at the workplace is pivotal for effective cancer prevention. We have heard today, how workers in the Americas are unnecessary at risk to get cancer because exposed to a large variety of carcinogens.

The overall PAHO plan of action is a blueprint for PAHO Member States for developing national cancer plans. We will make ensure that these plans include cancer prevention at the work place.

WHO /PAHO's roles is to sets norms and standard and to make sure that they are applied

WHO with its partners has set international standards for chemical safety. We know how to effectively reduce exposure to cancer risks. With simple low cost interventions workplaces can meet WHO health and safety standards and avoid exposure e.g.

  • stop the use of asbestos;
  • introduce benzene-free organic solvents and technologies that convert the carcinogenic chromium into a non-carcinogenic form;
  • ban tobacco use at the workplace; and
  • provide protective clothes for people working in the sun

Implementation needs partnerships

We now have to make sure that these standards are applied. And a national cancer plan is best to leverage implementation of preventive measures. PAHO is using all political opportunities at regional and sub regional level to increase awareness about the problem of occupational cancer. In order to achieve the overall goal of a workplaces free of cancer risk we need to work in partnerships beyond the health sector.

The Workers' Health Global Plan of Actions and Global Action Plan against Cancer are practical and comprehensive approaches to remediating the global burden of diseases due to occupational and environmental hazards. Both plans require the collaboration, cooperation, coordination, and commitment across countries, sectors, and disciplines.

Workers' Health at PAHO

During World Health Day, the PAHO Green and Healthy initiative was launched, continuing our commitment to healthy workplace. This initiative is embedded in the concept that workplace and work practices play a role in promoting the health and well-being of the employees, and their families. For this purpose, Committees of Health, Safety, and Well-being will be created, which, in coordination with the Area of Human Resources Management (HRM). The green and healthy initiative recognizes that PAHO has the unique opportunity at the local level to reduce its ecological footprint through reducing energy consumption, waste, and adopting green practices.

World Health Day

I would like to conclude by echoing the words spoken on PAHO's World Health Day celebration earlier this month: "Our planet, our health, our future - they are in our hands".

Indeed, improving worker's health is within our capacity. Effective management of the occupational risks that are pervasive in Latin America and the Caribbean is necessary for optimizing the health of the environment, current and future generations.

Let us use World Day for Health and Safety at Work to work towards avoiding the quarter of all preventable illnesses which are directly caused by environmental and occupational factors.


More information:
- Director's Newsletter: Briefing news and presentations from PAHO ceremony


The Workers' Health Program at PAHO invites all parties to participate in a dynamic, creative and inter-sectoral initiative to promote human sustainable development from the Canadian Arctic to Argentine's Tierra del Fuego through the initiative of their Regional Plan. The Regional Plan is committed to promoting equitable occupational health for the Region of the Americas through a preventative approach to health care. The desirability of a healthy continental community necessitates that workplaces be safe environments for workers', and that human capital be optimized. The benefits of a healthy workforce include higher productivity and fewer social costs, as well as increased well being for all members of society. Indeed, good health is an essential part of progress.


For more information, please contact Diaz, Eng. Katia (WDC), Director's Office Web Master.