How occupational health needs to be responding to coronavirus

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With coronavirus expected to have a severe impact on workplaces in the coming months, occupational health practitioners will have a key role to play in providing cool, calm and collected advice and support, as Nic Paton reports.

The headlines around the Covid-19 coronavirus appear to be getting grimmer by the day, if not minute by minute. But what is, and what should be, the role of occupational health professionals within this unfolding public health emergency?

First, a caveat. Coronavirus is, naturally, a fast-moving situation and therefore the guidance and advice can change rapidly.

But what is already clear, and likely to become only more so, is that this new virus has the potential to have a very significant impact on our workplaces.

Prime minister Boris Johnson suggested this week, for example, that as many as one in five staff could be off sick at the same time if the Covid-19 coronavirus takes hold in the UK.

Employers should therefore be prepared, where possible, to encourage greater home working and understand the impact of a coronavirus epidemic on their operations, particularly in the light of potential school closures and restrictions on public gatherings.

The government also announced that employees will be able to get statutory sick pay from their first day off work rather than the fourth as part of its plans to stem the spread of the virus.

Effective management of absence

The consultancy Empactis, where Council for Work and Health chair Dr Steve Boorman is director of employee health, has argued that effective managing, reporting and recording of absence will need to be a key response.

Organisations may need to look at the role line managers play in managing absence, how easy it is for employees to report that they are unwell (and not struggling in when they shouldn’t), and that there is effective maintenance of sickness absence records, it has said.

An editorial in the journal Occupational Medicine has also highlighted that a significant proportion of worldwide cases of coronavirus have been related to occupational exposure.

Written by World Health Organization consultant Professor David Koh, this has emphasised that workers in the tourism, retail and hospitality sectors, transport and security and construction have been commonly affected so far.

At-risk occupational groups therefore need to be protected by infection control practices and by adhering to public health measures, including early detection, quarantine and isolation.

Bear in mind, too, that those working in at-risk industries can face discrimination, with reports that taxi drivers have refused to pick up medical staff, an ambulance driver was refused service by a food stall and a nurse was scolded for taking public transport.

Another strand of the OH response to coronavirus may in that case need to be ensuring that there is appropriate social and mental health support available for those at risk, Professor Koh recommended.

‘Drive through’ testing

The government and NHS response is also evolving rapidly, with NHS England announcing it was rolling out services on NHS sites to test people for coronavirus, including a new “drive through” testing service, accessible through an NHS 111 referral.

This was being trialled in west London but now may be rolled out more widely, with people referred being invited to an appointment in their car, during which two community nurses carry out a swab in the nose and mouth, which is assessed within 72 hours.

Ultimately, while there will inevitably be day-to-day ‘firefighting’, one of the key roles for occupational health practitioners will be in providing calm, reasoned and evidence-based advice and guidance to employers and organisations.

As Fiona King, chief operating officer for the Faculty of Occupational Health Nursing, tells Occupational Health & Wellbeing: “It will of course be different for every organisation because of their risk profile, but I believe occupational health does have an important role to be that voice of clinical expertise; we can be the reassuring voice, in some ways.

“The whole thing, really, is just to ensure we are following the Public Health England guidelines. Organisations can naturally panic and think, ‘should we doing more than we are?’. Which is why it’s important that occupational health is part of an organisation’s business continuity plans; that we are influencing and informing,” she adds.

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