The ILO Encyclopedia of Occupational Health and Safety: A Multidisciplinary Challenge

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The ILO Encyclopaedia of Occupational Health and Safety: A multidisciplinary challenge*

The International Labour Office (ILO) has just published the fourth edition ( 1998) of its Encyclopaedia of Occupational Health and Safety,1 a massive tome of over 4,000 pages which aims to present a panoramic view of the basic information available in this field - a field which covers an enormous range of subjects, including ethical issues, details of particular diseases, hazardous chemicals, management policy and social problems.

The history of the Encyclopaedia is as long as the history of the ILO itself. An immediate task presented to the ILO by the first International Labour Conference, held in Washington in 1919, was the creation of a "list" of hazardous conditions and substances that could be found in the workplace. The ILO's first Director-General, Albert Thomas, soon saw that the charge was too narrow. The mandate was therefore broadened from generating a "list" to creating a compendium of all hazards. This compendium became the first edition of the Encyclopaedia, published in two volumes, in 1930 and 1934, respectively. It was the result of the collaborative effort of experts from around the world, each of whom contributed chapters in their areas of expertise.

The goal of creating such a compendium was clearly ambitious even in 1919, when the range of goods and services and production processes was comparatively limited. The task becomes still more daunting in 1998 since the twentieth century has witnessed the rapid expansion of human endeavour. The countries of the developed North are now largely urban and highly technological. In the industrial nations, the period following the Second World War was one marked by expansion of the chemical and plastics industry. Agriculture became mechanized and heavily dependent on the use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers. Fewer and fewer people in the industrialized world were engaged in agricultural pursuits, while food production was dramatically increased and food processing as well developed into a huge mechanized industry. Technological advance was accompanied by massive urbanization. The chemical revolution was followed by an electronic revolution, in which the semiconductor transformed both manufacturing and white-collar workplaces. Today computer-controlled technologies run the wheels of industry in advanced industrial countries and also control the flow of paper and budgets in their offices. These technologies also run the transport and storage of goods. More and more workers are engaged in service industries, while their numbers have dwindled in manufacturing.

Development has, of course, been extremely uneven. The less developed South still has large numbers of people living under subsistence conditions, with only rudimentary technology available to them. Indeed, many of the early hazards described in the first, second and third editions of the Encyclopaedia still exist in those parts of the world which are as yet untouched by modern industry. Rather, much to the disgrace of the advanced technological nations, obsolete industrial processes, equipment and even forbidden chemicals have been shipped "south" and used without benefit of modern engineering and technology, thus exposing hundreds of thousands of less fortunate workers to conditions no longer tolerated in the developed world.

Thus, the fourth edition of the ILO Encyclopaedia of Occupational Health and Safety had to address not only the potential hazards associated with the highly mechanized, chemical-based modern industrial world and its health care and service industries, but also - ironically - the kind of conditions found in the 1930s and described in the first edition. This dual challenge has led to a near doubling of the size of the Encyclopaedia: the fourth edition comprises four volumes, covering nearly 2000 individual chemicals. The first spanned two volumes and a fraction of the chemicals that are commonly found in industry today. …