Occupational health programmes specifically for health workers should be developed at national, regional and organisational levels and cover all work-related hazards ranging from ergonomic to psychosocial issues, two United Nations bodies have recommended.
The World Health Organization (WHO) and International Labour Organization (ILO) said health workers face a range of risks, including infections, unsafe patient handling, hazardous chemicals, radiation, heat and noise, psychosocial hazards, violence and harassment, injuries, inadequate water, sanitation and hygiene.
Most of these risks existed before the coronavirus pandemic, but the WHO and ILO say some have since worsened.
More than one in three health facilities globally lack hygiene stations at the point of care, they argue, and fewer than one in six countries had a national policy governing the health and safety of health workers.
New guidance issued by the bodies suggests more needs to be done to ensure that worker health and safety is at the core of the healthcare sector, and recommends the development of “comprehensive and gender-responsive” policies for managing occupational health and safety to prevent disease and injury caused by work, as well as improve workers’ wellbeing.
Countries that have developed occupational health and safety programmes for health workers have experienced reductions in work-related injuries and diseases and sickness absence, as well as improvements in the work environment, work productivity and retention of health workers, they say. In the UK, the NHS has its own occupational health service.
Health issues in the NHS
Dr Maria Neira, director at the WHO’s Department of Environment, Climate Change and Health, said: “Even before the Covid-19 pandemic, the health sector was among the most hazardous sectors to work in.
“Health workers suffered from infections, musculoskeletal disorders and injuries, workplace violence and harassment, burnout, and allergies from the poor working environment.”
Alette van Leur, director at the ILO Sectoral Policies department, said: “Effective mechanisms should be put in place to ensure continuous collaboration between employers, managers and health workers, with the aim of protecting health and safety at work.
“Health workers, like all other workers, should enjoy their right to decent work, safe and healthy working environments and social protection for health care, sickness absence and occupational diseases and injuries.”
The bodies’ Caring for those who care guidance suggests that OH programmes in health providers should include:
- A facility occupational health and safety policy.
- A facility focal point for occupational health and safety for health workers.
- A joint labour–management committee for health and safety at work.
- Information, education and training.
- Assessment and mitigation of occupational hazards.
- Immunisation of health workers.
- Recording, investigation and reporting of incidents.
- Early detection, diagnosis, treatment, care, notification and support for occupational diseases and injuries.
- Monitoring and evaluation.
- Environmental hygiene and sustainability.
National OH policies for health workers should involve:
- Issuing a national policy statement and communicating this to workplaces via management and practice environments.
- Designating a unit at national level of take charge of the occupational health and safety of health workers.
- Forming a multistakeholder steering committee for health and safety in healthcare.
- Introducing regulations and standards for prevention and control of the most common occupational health hazards in the health sector.
- Developing a set of key indicators for monitoring programme implementation at the national, subnational and facility levels and integrating this into the national health information system.