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Foreword to the Encyclopedia, Fourth Edition (1998)

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No one profession holds the key to understanding and solving the problems of work-related hazards. The field of occupational safety and health is truly multidisciplinary.

The intent of the fourth edition of the International Labour Organization’s Encyclopaedia of Occupational Health and Safety is to present a panoramic view of the basic available information in the field. But what comprises the “field”? Let us consider an example.

How might a group of various experts approach health and safety issues that relate to long-term use of visual display units (VDUs), the now familiar computer screens? A physician, charged with the occupational health service for a group of VDU workers, might tend to schedule medical exams to look for signs and symptoms of physical illness. Eye examinations would be one logical component. VDU-specific eyeglasses might be one solution. The epidemiologist, on the other hand, would confront the problem statistically. She would want to gather data on the results of the examinations of a group of VDU workers and compare them to workers who did not engage in VDU work, in order to determine the relative risks of the job for various health outcomes. The occupational hygienist would focus on the environment and might measure the lighting levels or test for particular contaminants. The ergonomist could orient towards the design of the equipment itself and study the physical interactions between the machine and the worker. The psychologist would look towards organizational factors—the social structure in the workplace—concentrating on issues such as job demands, job control and electronic performance monitoring, while the basic researcher might be more interested in experiments on the biological mechanisms that could ultimately explain any effects observed. The educator might develop training materials for helping workers function optimally on the job. The trade unionist and the employer may be interested in the application of principles of occupational health to conditions of employment and contractual agreements. Finally, the lawyer and the government regulator might be considering still other pragmatic issues, such as compensation for injuries, or “proving” possible health effects for establishing workplace regulation.

Each of these approaches is a valid and important aspect of occupational health and safety and each complements the other. No one profession holds the key to understanding and solving the problems of work-related hazards. The “field” of occupational safety and health is truly multidisciplinary.

Multidisciplinarity is challenging to the encyclopaedia editor. Facts may be neutral, but the way in which they are comprehended, interpreted and applied is culture bound, where by culture we mean the integrated pattern of human belief, behaviour and knowledge. In technical fields, culture will be a reflection of the basic discipline of training, as well as of personal philosophy. Not only will what you are—a lawyer, hygienist, trade unionist or physician—guide your thinking, but who you are—whether you are a representative of government, labour or management, for example—will inevitably influence your perceptions of the universe, its demands, its effects. Where you developed your expertise will also matter, since the philosophical and practical underpinnings of science and medicine, too, are culture bound and hence not the same throughout the world. At the very least you will be bound by the realities of available resources and this will inevitably alter your perspective. A seasoned professional attempts to minimize such biases, but one look at the real world shows how pervasive they are.

The problems of multidisciplinarity have not been solved in this Encyclopaedia, and probably will never completely be solved anywhere, but a pragmatic approach has been developed here. The Encyclopaedia has been developed in parts, sections and chapters which correspond to the various disciplines that comprise occupational health and safety. It has been designed to provide the general user with background information on the major disciplines of occupational health and safety in an understandable manner that will, at the same time, be considered rigorous by professionals in those fields. We have attempted to provide sufficient depth and breadth of coverage to permit workers in one area to appreciate and be stimulated by the ideas and approaches of other disciplines in occupational health and safety. We have endeavoured to make the descriptions of hazard recognition and control as straightforward as possible, with a minimum of jargon. The overall structures is:

Volume I

  • The Body and Health Care take a medical approach and provides information on disease, its detection and prevention, and occupational health services and health promotional activities.
  • Prevention, Management and Policy covers legal, ethical and social policy aspects of the field, as well as educational and informational and institutional resources.
  • Tools and Approaches provides insight into the disciplines which comprise the study and application of occupational health and safety: engineering, ergonomics, occupational hygiene, epidemiology and statistics and laboratory research.

Volume II

  • Hazards spans the range of chemical, physical and social hazards, accidents and safety management methods that may be encountered around the world. The nature of the hazard is detailed, together with technical information on its recognition, evaluation and control.

Volume III

  • Chemicals presents basic data on use in industry and chemical, physical and toxicological properties information on more than 2,000 chemicals categorized by chemical family
  • Industries and Occupations takes a “how things work” and “how to control hazards” approach to all the major industries. The hazards associated with a variety of occupations which span several industrial sectors are presented in a hazard card format.

Volume IV

  • Indexes and Guides provides a how-to-use the Encyclopaedia guide; lists of tables and figures and collaborating institutions; and indexes of chemical substances, cross-references, subjects and authors cited.


Several thousand internationally recognized experts have been called upon to be writers and reviewers of this Encyclopaedia. They have been drawn from virtually all the major institutions around the world and we have attempted to assure that international perspectives are represented because such perspectives are not the same everywhere and it is the responsibility of the International Labour Organization to promote the free interchange of different conceptualizations. Further, problems and solutions vary around the globe and it makes good sense to seek out the expertise of those who personally know and understand the issues.

In this Encyclopaedia we have planted an occupational health and safety garden with facts, figures and interpretations to assist in the blossoming of safe and healthful working conditions around the world. The seeds have been sown in more or less orderly disciplinary groupings, so that the reader, once becoming familiar with the garden paths, can create any bouquet of facts that she or he wants. The indexes in the fourth volume provide a more detailed map, including a valuable index guide to the essential cross-referencing of information. The experienced reader will soon learn what is planted where and will be able to make his way along a favoured route.

The electronic version of this work has additional navigational aids, with its built-in hyperlinks and specialized search facilities. By judicious creation of searches, the astute CD-ROM user could even plant an entirely new and rearranged garden of his or her own.

The Encyclopaedia is not, of course, one hundred per cent complete. Isolated facts are missing. Some notions may be outdated even before we go to press. This is the sign of an active and creative field of human endeavour. This Encyclopaedia could not have been written without the countless hours of work of individuals from around the world. The reader will find the names of our collaborators in the lists of authors and editors, and in the Directory of Experts which is published in the electronic version of this work. Most of these individuals came to the effort with the full support and assistance of the institutions with which they were affiliated. Volume IV contains a non-exhaustive list of these collaborating institutions, as well.

We are grateful for the extensive support in this worldwide effort. Of course, the individual viewpoints presented are ultimately those of the authors and not of their institutions or the International Labour Office. We hope that the compendium of ideas presented here will hasten the day in which occupational death and disease is a rarity in the world.

Jeanne Mager Stellman
Geneva, 1998

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