Each year at least 750,000 workers take 13 million days off because of work-related illness at a total cost to the taxpayer of around pounds 4-5bn.
This includes compensation claims, loss of business due to bad publicity, and the need to retrain or recruit new staff, the Health and Safety Executive said.
Frank Davies, chairman of the Health and Safety Commission, acknowledged that its campaign could lead to more litigation by workers against their employers but that this could be "a good thing", he said. "Workers should draw matters to the attention of employers because everyone should be involved in the promotion of good health."
Sir John Harvey Jones, the former ICI chairman and now celebrity management guru, who features in the HSE campaign video, said it was a "crime" that any worker should suffer work-related illness.
A 1990 Labour Force Survey in England and Wales found that musco-skeletal disorders - strains, sprains, back problems - were the most frequently reported problem with 600,000 cases; this was followed by stress/depression (100,000); deafness/other ear conditions (100,000); lower respiratory tract diseases (80,000 - one quarter of which were asthma); and skin disease (55,000 cases).
One of the problems highlighted at the press launch in London yesterday, was the risk of asthma among bakery workers exposed daily to flour dust.
The HSE's pounds 1.5m campaign, "Good Health is Good Business", will focus on small and medium-sized enterprises with up to 200 employers, but will also involve GPs and other health professionals who can influence employers. A television advertising campaign begins tomorrow highlighting the dangers of vibration, dust, noise, repetitive movements, and handling of chemicals.
David Eves, deputy director general of the HSE, said it would not "hesitate in taking action", against employers who put their workforce at risk.
There had been 260 prosecutions under the 1988 Coshh (Control of substances hazardous to health) regulations, Mr Eves said, and the first custodial sentence had recently been imposed on the director of a company which had recklessly ignored safety advice while dismantling a building containing asbestos.
Ann Holgarth, a former nurse who was forced to give up work in 1990 because of a severe back injury, urged better education for employers and employees on how to avoid musco-skeletal problems. Ms Holgarth fell on the ward but continued working. "Apart from my ill health, I suffered job bereavement - nursing was my profession and something that I had always wanted to do and that was taken away from me..."
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