Countries need to put in place sound and resilient OHS systems that minimise the risks for everyone in the world of work in the event of future health emergencies, according to the International Labour Organization (ILO).
This will require investment in OHS infrastructure and integrating it into overall national crisis emergency preparedness and response plans, so that workers’ safety and health is protected, and the business continuity of enterprises is supported.
The ILO released a report, Anticipate, prepare and respond to crises. Invest now in resilient OSH systems on world day for safety and health at work which analyses health and safety risks associated with the changing work arrangements arising from virus control measures.
“There could be no clearer demonstration of the importance of a strong, resilient, occupational safety and health environment,” said ILO Director-General, Guy Ryder.
“Recovery and prevention will require better national policies, institutional and regulatory frameworks, properly integrated into crisis response framework.”
Since the COVID-19 pandemic emerged workers in specific sectors, such as emergency, health and social care, have been particularly vulnerable to the risk of infection.
According to data cited in the report, 7000 health workers have died since the outbreak of the crisis, while 136 million health and social care workers are at risk of contracting COVID-19 through work.
The pressures and risks facing health workers during the pandemic have also taken a toll on their mental health: one in five healthcare workers globally have reported depression and anxiety symptoms.
The risk of violence and harassment at work has also risen, with consequences for both physical and mental wellbeing. Many healthcare workers have had to confront difficult decisions resulting in moral fatigue, such as choosing how to allocate limited resources when faced with many serious cases in intensive care.
The pandemic has also witnessed an increase in the number of cases of domestic violence, including for workers confined to the home due to lockdowns, with up to five times more calls globally to domestic violence helplines
In analysing the health concerns arising from the dramatic increase in teleworking during the pandemic, the report says that while teleworking has been essential in limiting the spread of the virus, maintaining jobs and business continuity and giving workers increased flexibility, it has also blurred the lines between work and private life.
Sixty-five per cent of enterprises surveyed by the ILO and the G20 OHS Network reported that worker morale has been difficult to sustain while teleworking.
The report says small and micro-sized enterprises have often found it hard to meet official OHS requirements because many have lacked the resources to adapt to the threats posed by the pandemic.
In the informal economy, many of the 1.6 billion workers, especially in developing countries, have continued working despite lockdowns, restrictions on movement and social interaction, and other measures.
This has put them at high risk of catching the virus, yet most do not have access to basic social protection, such as sick leave or sick pay.
In addition to the risk of acquiring the novel coronavirus, workers in all sectors have faced other hazards during the pandemic that have emerged due to new work practices and procedures adopted to mitigate the spread of the virus.
Mitigation strategies have rapidly been adopted, including administrative and engineering controls, working from home arrangements, increased use of PPE and disinfection, etc.
These measures might help slow the spread of the virus, but they can create new OHS risks, including chemical, ergonomic and psychosocial hazards.
The report said investment in OHS, both programmatically and financially, contributes to a strong OHS system at the national level – a system that is prepared to respond to crises such as COVID-19, major industrial accidents, natural disasters and other unforeseen challenges.
“Acknowledging that robust national OHS systems are key to safeguarding lives and livelihoods, it is vital to ensure that they are well-resourced to better absorb the impacts of any challenges head-on, and to bolster public and private institutions,” the report said.
“Investing in these systems is therefore not only necessary to guarantee that they can respond to crises but, more importantly, that they can prepare for and mitigate such crises.”