Human rights and the protection of workers from exposure to toxic substances

Haiti: Waste in Time © Giles Clark

Over 2,780,000 workers globally die from unsafe or unhealthy conditions of work each year, according to the International Labour Organization (ILO). Despite clear human rights obligations relating to the protection of their health, workers around the world find themselves in the midst of a health crisis: it is estimated that one worker dies at least every 30 seconds from exposure to toxic industrial chemicals, pesticides, dust, radiation and other hazardous substances. Because incidents of exposure are grossly underreported in some contexts and countries, this figure is an underestimation.  Approximately 160 million cases of occupational disease are reported annually.

In September 2019, the UN Special Rapporteur on the implications for human rights of the environmentally sound management and disposal of hazardous substances and wastes (toxics), Baskut Tuncak, presented a report to the UN Human Rights Council containing 15 principles to help States, businesses and other key actors to better protect workers from toxic exposures and to provide remedies for violations of workers’ rights.

Elaborated on the basis of a broad consultative process, the principles benefit from comments and suggestions received through written submissions as well as intensive, targeted consultations undertaken since 2017 with States, international organizations, civil society, and other stakeholders. The principles are rooted in nearly 25 years of research and analysis under the “toxics” mandate, including country visits, thematic research and communications with States and non-State actors. 

The report, “Principles on the protection of workers from exposure to toxic substances,” is available here.

The principles are based on an in-depth examination of various cases of the rights of workers brought to the attention of successive mandate holders and addressed in reports and discussions at the global, regional, and national levels. They are grounded in existing international human rights law and built upon the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, several ILO instruments and relevant international agreements on toxic chemicals and wastes. 

This analysis was detailed in the 2018 report of the Special Rapporteur regarding the human rights of workers and their exposure to toxic substances.  In this report, the Special Rapporteur examines the human rights implications of occupational exposures to toxic and otherwise hazardous substances and discusses challenges to the rights of workers affected by toxic exposures. In the conclusions of his 2018 report, he proposed 15 draft principles, on which the final 2019 principles are based.