On World Day for Safety and Health at Work, businesses prepare for life with coronavirus
World Day for Safety and Health at Work, marked annually on April 28, is receiving additional attention this year as the world tackles the novel coronavirus.
As businesses slowly start to reopen their doors, a robust debate has emerged about whether improving the economic situation, currently at a standstill in most countries, will come at the expense of workers’ health.
However, some experts say that financial versus public health is a false choice, and that both can be maximized if economies are restarted in the right way.
“The biggest concern is that employers will rush to open their doors and return to business as usual without taking the necessary prevention measures, and we will have a new surge of the disease,” Dr. Manal Azzi, a senior expert on occupational safety and health at the International Labor Organization, told The Media Line.
Dr. Lode Godderis, a professor of occupational medicine at the University of Leuven’s Centre for Environment and Health in Belgium, argued that this was best done through collaboration in the workplace.
“Businesses should work together with their employees as they prepare to go back to work. This will also help tackle workers’ anxiety about returning to their place of employment,” he told The Media Line.
Godderis said there were physical steps employers needed to take, such as implementing social distancing by installing Plexiglas or other barriers, and encouraging workers to keep their masks on when this is not possible. Workers must have access to soap and hand sanitizer containing at least 70% alcohol, he added.
Developing a plan together would also benefit workers psychologically, he argued.
“Investing in getting back to work and [providing] social support are preventive measures against mental health problems,” Godderis said. “The longer the worker is away from work, the worse the anxiety becomes over getting back to work.”
Azzi said that for workplaces to be safer, employers must be aware of the vulnerabilities that could expose someone to the virus. In addition to physical barriers, proper education and access to good hygiene measures, she said employers should change the very way they conduct business.
“Employers need to conduct comprehensive occupational safety and health risk assessments for the work premises…. These measures will assess the levels of risk from contagion in addition to other associated safety and health risks,” Azzi said.
“Then the necessary control measures need to be put in place to protect workers, [including]… administrative measures, such as shifts and rotations of workers… and the provision of personal protective equipment where appropriate at no cost to the worker.”
Peter Hasle, a professor of global sustainable production at the University of Southern Denmark, argues that small businesses are most likely to have difficulty complying with health measures imposed by the government. He said they need to find creative ways to survive in a difficult financial environment that is nobody’s fault.
“Small businesses are characterized by fewer resources, and it is more difficult for them to control their situation than larger companies. They need to look for niche possibilities where there are holes in the system, where they can make some kind of business and survive,” Hasle told The Media Line.
“It’s also a question of trying to find new ways of complying with health advice and still running a business,” he noted.
“In my municipality in Demark, where we have closed all the shopping centers, small shops not located [in commercial centers] have found ways of operating,” he stated. “They are compliant with health regulations while letting in a few customers [at a time], and thus have a greater possibility of surviving the crisis.”
Hasle said the workers most at risk during the epidemic are low-wage earners in poor countries.
“The main problem for workers in developing countries worldwide [is that] they are losing their income, so they can’t pay for food,” he said. “Of course, there are other expenses, but basically it comes down to feeding themselves and their families.”
Still, hospitals and nursing homes remain the most dangerous places for infection.
“Health staff is at a great risk, and it’s been a problem for almost all countries to secure sufficient personal protective equipment,” Hasle said.
Essential businesses that stayed open throughout the pandemic, such as Dr. Einat Yaniv’s veterinary clinic in Jerusalem, could act as model on how to operate safely, for example by separating people whenever possible and limiting unnecessary interaction.
“We’ve changed our hours. We are working with one doctor and one assistant; sometimes two doctors and one assistant. Everyone is wearing masks,” Yaniv told The Media Line.
“We try not to do elective procedures like teeth cleaning,” she added. “And whenever possible, the owners stay in the waiting room while the animal is being treated.”
However, even with all possible safety measures, workplaces will be unable to eliminate the risk of catching COVID-19, and when the pandemic is over, it will not simply be back to business.
“We welcome that a government traditionally hostile to trade unions has given us a seat at the table, working with [cabinet] ministers and civil servants to try to solve complex issues,” a spokesperson for Unite, the UK’s leading trade union, told The Media Line.
“When this crisis is over, the government must continue to recognize our vital role in ensuring the safety and security of workers, and of our economy,” the spokesperson said.