Pandemic impact highlights need for resilient Occupational Safety and Health systems

COVID-19 has reinforced the need for resilient national Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) systems to be in place. To mark Safe Day 2021, Chihoko Asada-Miyakawa, ILO’s Assistant Director-General and Regional Director for Asia and the Pacific explains what they are and what needs to be done.

Comment | Bangkok, Thailand | 28 April 2021
The COVID-19 pandemic, and its profound impacts on the world of work, underscore just how important Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) is to all of us.

Workplaces can easily become contaminated with the novel coronavirus, exposing workers, their families and communities to the risk of infection. In addition to the risk of 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. Teleworking, for example, has led to ergonomic and psychosocial risks with some 65 per cent of surveyed enterprises reporting that worker morale has been difficult to sustain while working from home.

Certain workplaces have been particularly affected, such as the 136 million health and social workers at serious risk of acquiring COVID-19 during the course of their work. Moreover, those workers as well as essential staff in many other sectors have faced increased workloads, 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 well-being.

The protection of workers against sickness, disease and injury related to their work environment has been a central issue for the ILO since 1919. From the onset of the COVID-19 crisis, the principles contained in ILO Occupational Safety and Health standards have shown to be more relevant than ever, especially the principle of prevention.

Faced with an unprecedented public health emergency, governments have taken rapid measures to curb the spread of the virus through public health systems. Actors in the world of work, and 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 has been needed to ensure that policies and strategies do not discriminate against any workers, and consider those in vulnerable situations including the young, women, disabled and migrant workers, the self-employed and the informal economy.

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

The key elements of a national OSH system are set out in ILO’s Promotional Framework for Occupational Safety and Health Convention, 2006 (No. 187). They comprise national OSH policy, 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 and the Pacific region the COVID 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 Ministry of Health and Family Welfare 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 COVID-19 pandemic has furthermore demonstrated the importance of social dialogue between governments, employers’ and workers’ organizations 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. Through the concerted action and commitment of all stakeholders let us together forge the strong and effective national OSH systems we need to safeguard the life and health of every worker for years to come.