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Pandemic highlights need for resilient occupational safety and health systems

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Healthcare workers wear face masks and carry signs in support of resident physicians, interns and fellows at UCLA Health as they protest for improved Covid-19 testing and workplace safety policies outside of UCLA Medical Centre in Los Angeles, California, last year. AFP

Pandemic highlights need for resilient occupational safety and health systems

Workplaces can easily become contaminated, exposing workers, their families and communities to the risk of transmission. In addition to infection, workers in all sectors face additional hazards that have emerged due to new work practices and procedures adopted to mitigate the spread of the virus.

Working at home, for instance, has led to ergonomic and psychosocial risks with some 65 per cent of surveyed enterprises reporting that worker morale has been difficult to sustain.

Certain workplaces have been particularly affected, such as the 136 million health and social workers at serious risk of contracting Covid-19 during the course of their work. Moreover, those workers, as well as essential staff in many other sectors, have faced increased workload, longer working hours and reduced rest periods. The risk of violence and harassment at work has also risen, with consequences for both physical and mental wellbeing.

The protection of workers against sickness, disease and injury related to their work environment has been a central issue for the International Labour Organisation (ILO) since 1919.

Since the start of the Covid-19 crisis, principles contained in the ILO Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) standards have shown to be more relevant than ever, especially the principle of prevention.

Faced with an unprecedented public health emergency, governments have taken measures to curb the spread of the virus through public health systems. Actors in the world of work, particularly in the field of OSH, have been crucial in the emergency response for protecting workers including those who support public health systems.

At the same time, special attention is needed to ensure that policies and strategies do not discriminate against anyone, and consider those in vulnerable situations including the young, women, disabled and migrant workers, the self-employed and the informal economy.

Among the many lessons learned from this crisis is the need for countries to have a sound and resilient OSH system in place, one that can build capacity for future emergencies and protect workers’ safety and health while supporting the survival of enterprises.

The ILO’s Promotional Framework for Occupational Safety and Health Convention, 2006 lays out key elements of a national OSH system.

They comprise regulatory and institutional frameworks; occupational health services; information, advisory services and training; data collection and research; and mechanisms for strengthening OSH management systems at the enterprise level to prevent and respond to OSH risks. Investing in these systems enables countries to better face and recover from crises by safeguarding lives and livelihoods, and advancing the protection of workers.

In the Asia-Pacific region, the Covid-19 pandemic has led to many countries taking steps to strengthen priority elements of their national OSH system.

For example, Singapore has adopted new regulations on teleworking or leave with a view of protecting vulnerable populations. In India, the Health and Family Welfare Ministry has produced and disseminated materials on how to effectively communicate with workers and people who are suspected or confirmed to have Covid-19.

In New Zealand, occupational health professionals have helped workers set up ergonomically sound home office environments to support healthy teleworking. In Bangladesh, research has looked at instances of suicides by workers due to Covid-related unemployment or business closures. Meanwhile, a study in Malaysia examined the specific risks that migrants face in connection with Covid-19.

The pandemic has furthermore demonstrated the importance of social dialogue between governments, employers’ and workers’ organisations not only in responding to crises but also in promoting good OSH conditions.

A climate of trust, built through social dialogue, is essential for the effective implementation of measures to address emergencies such as Covid-19, which require quick but effective action. Strengthened respect for, and reliance upon, mechanisms for social dialogue create a strong foundation for building resilience and encouraging commitment from employers and workers to the necessary policy and practical measures.

Covid-19 has undoubtedly been one of the gravest occupational safety and health challenges the world has ever faced. A strong national OSH system can only be built through concerted action and commitment of all stakeholders.

Chihoko Asada-Miyakawa is ILO’s assistant director-general and regional director for Asia-Pacific

THE NATION (THAILAND)/ASIA NEWS NETWORK

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