Underreporting of Occupational Diseases in Latin America

Explore the issue of underreporting of occupational diseases in Latin America, its causes, consequences, and potential solutions, as well as efforts to improve workplace safety in Mexico.

Underreporting of Occupational Diseases in Latin America
Workers equipped with safety gear, representing the increased focus on preventive measures against occupational diseases. Image by F. Muhammad from Pixabay

Latin America has been grappling with the problem of underreporting occupational diseases. According to the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), only five out of every 100 people identified as ill due to occupational exposure are recognized as such. Rodolfo Nava Hernandez, the coordinator of Occupational Health of the Graduate Studies Division of the Faculty of Medicine (FM) at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), revealed this alarming data, illustrating a significant public health concern.

Underreporting is not a unique feature of Latin America but is prevalent in most developing countries, including Mexico. While these nations provide occupational health and accident statistics to the International Labor Organization (ILO), there often exists a disparity between reported data and actual on-ground realities.

Reasons Behind Underreporting

Several factors contribute to the underreporting of occupational diseases in Latin America. One of the primary issues is the dearth of trained professionals in the field. It's estimated that in Mexico, out of approximately 13,000 doctors working in private companies, fewer than 1,000 possess any training in occupational medicine and health. This deficit significantly affects the ability to diagnose occupational illnesses accurately.

Moreover, there is an inclination among companies to hide incidences of such diseases to prevent the elevation of risk premiums for occupational accidents or illnesses. It is common for employees to approach social security institutions, only to have their condition dismissed as unrelated to their work. Distinguishing occupational diseases from general health conditions can often be complex due to the subtlety and long-term onset of symptoms.

Indeed, establishing a cause-effect relationship between occupational exposure and health damage poses challenges. The damage might take years to manifest, during which employees might not correlate their health problems with their work environment.

Global and National Occupational Disease Statistics

According to the ILO, an estimated 2.4 million people die each year from work-related diseases, and about 380,000 from work-related accidents. Furthermore, there are approximately 374 million work-related accidents per year globally, with most being non-fatal.

In Mexico, the Mexican Social Security Institute (IMSS) - the only social security institution that annually reports occupational accidents and illnesses - notes an average of 13,000 cases of work-related diseases per year and over 300,000 work-related accidents.

Additionally, incidents occurring during commutes to and from work are of significant concern. These accounted for 109,512 incidents in Mexico in 2021, ranging from road accidents and vehicle crashes to assaults.

On April 12, the Mexican Chamber of Deputies approved new tables for Occupational Diseases and Valuation of Permanent Disabilities. The latter includes both partial permanent disabilities - where people lose some function or part of their body - and total permanent disabilities - where the worker's impairment prevents them from returning to work.

In 2021, 35,962 permanent disabilities were reported, spanning sectors such as the processing industry, mining, construction, shopping centers, schools, and private hospitals.

Occupational Safety Laws and Regulations

Mexico's occupational safety provisions are set out in Article 123 of the Mexican Constitution, which mandates employers to inform their workers about potential risk factors. Employers are also required to elucidate the possible health damages and preventive measures associated with these risks. These laws are bolstered by several regulations, official norms, and international standards.

Mexico has also ratified a series of ILO conventions, such as Convention No. 155. This convention underscores the state's obligation to formulate, implement, and periodically review a national policy to safeguard workers from various occupational risk factors. These include physical, chemical, biological, ergonomic, psychosocial, and mechanical risk factors. Psychosocial risks entail mistreatment, shift rotation, night work, and low wages.

ILO Convention No. 161 emphasizes the prevention of accidents and illnesses through the joint effort of a multidisciplinary team of professionals. This team, consisting of doctors, nurses, occupational psychologists, ergonomists, and industrial hygienists, identifies and evaluates risk factors in the work environment.

Lastly, ILO Convention No. 187 - yet to be ratified by Mexico - calls for the creation of a national occupational safety and health system, the fostering of a national prevention culture, and the gradual improvement of working conditions in micro, small, and medium-sized enterprises and the informal economy.

In conclusion, Latin America, including Mexico, faces substantial challenges in addressing the underreporting of occupational diseases. Overcoming these hurdles requires a concerted effort from all stakeholders, including governments, employers, and healthcare professionals, to improve the recognition, reporting, and prevention of occupational diseases, ultimately protecting the workforce and contributing to public health.