On World Day for Safety and Health at Work, the World Health Organization calls upon all governments, employers and workers organizations and the global community to take urgent measures for strengthen countries’ capacities to protect occupational health and safety of health workers and emergency responders respect their rights to decent working conditions, and develop national programmes for occupational health of health workers and to provide them with occupational health services. Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, ILO has dedicated World Day for Safety and Health at Work 2020 in addressing the outbreak of infectious diseases at work, in particular, on the COVID-19 pandemic.
Health workers are at the front line of the COVID-19 outbreak response and as such are exposed to hazards that put them at risk of infection. Hazards include pathogen exposure, long working hours, psychological distress, fatigue, occupational burnout, stigma, and physical and psychological violence.
Infections with COVID-19, insufficient measures for infection prevention and control, occupational safety and health, mental health and psychosocial support for health workers result in high rates of absenteeism and deplete the health workforce – the most precision resources for stopping the COVID outbreak.
Key Messages and Facts
COVID-19 infections among health workers:
- As of 21 April 2020 countries reported to WHO that over 35, 000 health workers were infected with COVID19. This number is significantly higher because of underreporting.
- The major occupational risks for COVID19 infection among health workers are: late recognition or suspicion of COVID-19 in patients, working in a higher-risk department, longer duty hours, sub-optimal adherence to infection prevention and control measures, such as hand hygiene practices, and lack of or improper use of personal protective equipment (PPE). Other factors have also been documented, such as inadequate or insufficient IPC training for respiratory pathogens, including the COVID-19 virus, as well as long exposure in areas in healthcare facilities where large numbers of COVID-19 patients were being cared for.
- The prevention of infections requires the use of appropriate infection prevention and control measures by all health workers, with a special focus on the adherence to hand hygiene and personal protective equipment when caring for COVID-19 patients, as well as a combination of environmental and administrative controls
- Health workers infected with COVID-19 following exposure in the workplace should have the right to employment injury benefits for occupational disease, including compensation, rehabilitation, and curative services.
Violence and stigma against health workers:
- Health workers are at high risk of violence all over the world. Between 8% and 38% of health workers suffer physical violence at some point in their careers. Many more are threatened or exposed to verbal aggression and social stigma because of their work.
- In the COVID19 crisis, shortage of staff and resources and increasing social tensions result in increased level of violence against health workers and even attacks against health care facilities. Doctors, nurses, security personnel and those who are assisting in testing, tracing contacts and enforcing physical distancing measures to stop COVID-19 experience threats and aggression.
- WHO calls upon governments, employers and workers organizations to institute measures for zero-tolerance to violence against health workers at the workplace and at the way to and from their workplace, and for intensifying social support and respect for health workers and their families.
Long working hours and psychosocial hazards for health workers:
- Many health workers have to work longer or irregular hours because of the increasing demand for health services. In addition, many countries experience shortage of health workers, or junior staff are working in demanding new roles.
- Health workers face psychosocial hazards, which are exacerbated during emergencies where demands increase and they have to experience risk of infection witness higher suffering or mortality.
- Long working hours, shift work, high workload and other psychosocial hazards can lead to fatigue, occupational burnout, increased psychological distress or declining mental health – affecting the health of health workers, and the quality and safety of care delivered.
- WHO calls for adequate staffing levels and clinical rotation in healthcare facilities, measures to minimize psychosocial hazards, and provision of access to mental health and psychosocial support for health workers.
The annual World Day for Safety and Health at Work on 28 April promotes the prevention of occupational accidents and diseases globally. It is an awareness-raising campaign intended to focus international attention on the magnitude of the problem and on how promoting and creating a safety and health culture can help reduce the number of work-related deaths and injuries.