ILO Report highlights new workplace dangers and need to protect health professionals

Analysing the ILO’s recent report on resilient occupational safety and health system to adapt to the COVID crisis, GYAN PATHAK writes about the report’s findings, including the devastating toll it has taken on healthcare workers worldwide, and the new mental and physical health hazards posed by newly adopted labour practices across the world in response to the pandemic.


THE world had already lost 7,000 health workers as far back as September last year since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic last year, and about 136 million health and social care workers are currently at severe risk of contracting the infection in their line of work. However, the tremendous pressure of handling patients day and night has adversely affected their mental health. One in five healthcare workers globally has reported depression and anxiety symptoms.

These are some of the issues that have been highlighted in a new report released by the International Labour Organization (ILO) while highlighting the workplace dangers faced by key frontline workers who need greater protection to do their jobs safely. The COVID-19 pandemic has underlined the need to minimize the risks for everyone in the workplace and put strong and resilient safety systems in place in the event of future health emergencies.

The report titled ‘Anticipate, prepare, and respond to crises: Invest now in resilient OSH [occupational safety and health] systems’ has said that the present pandemic is not only a health emergency, but has also profoundly impacted nearly every aspect of the world of work – from the immediate threat to workers of acquiring the virus at their workplaces to lockdowns, the closure of businesses and schools, widespread job losses in key sectors, global supply chain disruption, and restrictions on workers’ mobility.

In some cases, COVID-19 infections may be attributed to workplace exposure, and certain workplace settings – such as healthcare and social care – have been particularly affected.

It is worth mentioning that 14 percent of all global infections have occurred among healthcare workers. The estimated death toll of COVID in India till now has been 747 doctors. 

Healthcare and emergency workers – and also essential workers – have faced sustained stress at work as a result of the pandemic. Increased workload, longer working hours and reduced rest periods have become the norm for them during the crisis. The risk of violence and harassment at work has also risen, with consequences for both physical and mental well-being. 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 seriously ill patients in intensive care.

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Fresh problems posed by new workplace practices

In addition to the risk of the contagion, workers in all sectors have faced other hazards that have emerged due to the new work practices and procedures adopted to mitigate the spread the virus. Many mitigation strategies have rapidly been adopted, including administrative and engineering controls, working from home arrangements, increased use of personal protective equipment (PPE) and disinfection, etc. These measures might help slow the spread of the virus, but they can create new OSH risks, including chemical, ergonomic and psychosocial hazards.

Teleworking has been widely implemented in many settings. While this is seen as crucial to limit the spread of the virus, and maintain jobs and business continuity, it has led to certain OSH concerns, including ergonomic and psychosocial risks. It might provide workers with increased flexibility, but many of them also struggle with ‘presenteeism’, that is, the blurring of lines between work and private life, musculoskeletal disorders caused by stationary work in front of a computer, the responsibility of caring for children or parents while working, and the social isolation that may come from not being in the office – which affects professional development. According to the report, 65 percent of surveyed enterprises admitted that worker morale had been difficult to sustain while teleworking.

The pandemic has also witnessed an increase in the number of cases of domestic violence, including for workers confined to their homes due to lockdowns, with an estimated 20% increase in such incidents across the world.

Also read: May Day 2021 – Working Class Fights for Defence Against Deadly Pandemic

Adoption of international labour standards by countries

The report highlights the crucial role of international labour standards (ILS) in responding to the pandemic. It also urges countries to promote, respect and implement ILS provisions on occupational safety and health, working arrangements, protection of specific categories of workers, non-discrimination, and social and employment security, while adjusting to the socio-economic consequences of the pandemic. A wide range of ILO labour standards on employment, social protection, wage protection, promotion of Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises, and workplace cooperation can also be adopted when tackling the crisis and promoting economic recovery.

National public health and OSH systems need to be strengthened, along with sound complementary national policies and regulatory frameworks, for the protection and promotion of physical and mental health at work. This would ensure that working environments are safe and healthy and that there is a clear and well-known established set of rights and duties among employers and employees.

The report calls for recognition of COVID-19 as an occupational disease in all countries. Presently, only a few countries have this provision; in these countries, workers are compensated for any infection at work or the consequences of working under stressful conditions due to COVID-19. 

Also read: Corona and the tragic dynamics of labour economics in India

New legal requirements have been introduced, or have been proposed, to prevent the spread of the virus in the workplace, to adapt proactively to new contexts, and to allow for rapid and appropriate emergency responses. For instance, enterprises need to identify potential sources of exposure, taking into account all work areas and tasks performed by workers.

Almost all countries have issued some such guidelines, but there is still much to be done. According to a recent report by the G20 OSH Experts Network Campaign, even in G20 countries, ventilation and air filters are mandated by legislation only among 73 percent member nations, and physical barriers, such as using marker tape on the floor, one-way systems or clear plastic are legislatively guaranteed among only 64 percent of the member nations.

Organizational and administrative measures have included teleworking (legislatively adopted by 83 percent member nations), holding meetings virtually (legislatively taken up by 83 percent member nations), physical distancing (73 percent member states), involving workers in reviewing and updating risk assessments (67 percent member states), measures to control other risks related to the crisis and the changes put in place to deal with it (64 percent member states), working time shifts to reduce onsite presence of workers (63 percent of member states), and discontinuing non-essential travel (75 percent of member states).

Other measures such as the use of PPE is legislatively enacted by 82 percent member states, monitoring and supervision by 73 percent member states, cleaning surfaces and ensuring hygiene by 73 percent, training of workers by 64 percent, and procedures to deal with workers with COVID infection or symptoms by only 64 percent. Non-G20 countries are far worse in implementing these measures.

The ILO has, through this report, called for stronger mechanisms in every country to ensure compliance with national laws and regulations, including systematic inspections, to protect the health of key workers, in order to save lives and the economic resources to sustain it.  (IPA Service)