On the occasion of the World Day for Safety and Health at Work on 28 April, the International Social Security Association (ISSA) wants to pay tribute to all the courageous health workers who risk their lives to save others during the global COVID-19 pandemic.
Workers of all ages have the right to safe and healthy work. This powerful statement has been guiding the prevention efforts of governments, workers, employers and social security institutions for many decades all over the globe.
However, the prevention world as we know it may change forever: in January 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the outbreak of a new coronavirus disease in the Hubei Province, China to be a Public Health Emergency of international concern. Two months later, on 11 March 2020, the WHO declared the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak as a pandemic.
To date, over 2.7 million cases of a COVID-19 infection have been confirmed by the Coronavirus Resource Center of the Johns Hopkins University. Over 190 000 deaths have been reported. Forecasts predict that the global economy may shrink by between 1 and 7 per cent this year. In large parts of the world, people have to work from home, while production processes and food supply chains still need to be guaranteed. There has been a surge in unemployment, airlines and other major businesses have suspended their activities while hospitals are struggling to get enough medical supplies and personal protective equipment. This is not only bad news for business; it is also bad news for prevention.
Until now, occupational safety and health was mainly limited to the “occupational” aspects, the challenges at the workplace. Rarely did it spill over and affect our private lives. There were some exceptions of course, like psycho-social issues that can have their origins both in the workplace and at home. Nonetheless, these were considered individual health conditions, and they had no direct impact on the greater collective at the workplace. If a worker had an individual issue to deal with, the workplace would try to facilitate his or her needs. COVID-19 has changed this perception. The single-individual health threat no longer exists. It has become a collective issue that needs to be addressed collectively. Prevention must therefore step up. In times of COVID-19, the prevention of occupational risks will only work, if everyone takes responsibility, not only for their own life but also for the lives of others. Only a joint prevention effort will ensure the health and safety of a worker. It is a principle of solidarity, and therefore also a matter of social security.
Social security schemes play a key role in cushioning the impact that this crisis has on the labour markets and on the health of workers. Health insurers, unemployment schemes and occupational accident insurers are there to provide the safety net that society needs.
It has become evident that the ‘machinery’ of social security – the infrastructure, technology and people - has emerged as a critical strategic tool in managing crisis.
As for the workplace, ISSA members have launched information campaigns that are published on ISSA’s Corona Prevention Monitor. This online monitor features good practices on how to tackle COVID-19 and its impacts on social security systems. It includes information materials such as checklists, posters and hygiene recommendations at the workplace in many languages, but also emergency preparedness plans and response guides to prevent and control the spread of COVID-19, for instance from countries that can be considered leaders in COVID-19 responses, such as Korea.
In view of the reduced economic activities of its insured companies, some accident insurers have reduced their contribution rates, for two main reasons: first, to help them to overcome this difficult time with financial incentives; and second, because the risks of an occupational accident is significantly reduced, when people work from home, or don’t work at all.
Another pertinent question for Workers’ Compensation Boards is if COVID-19 can be considered an occupational disease. In order to ensure insurance coverage, in particular for workers in the most exposed sectors, rapid measures to facilitate the recognition of COVID-19 have already been implemented in a number of countries. The majority of countries followed the example of Italy, which was one of the first countries to be hit hard by the pandemic. The National Employment Accident Insurance Institute of Italy (INAIL) considers coronavirus infections of doctors, nurses and other employees of the National Health Service as well as of any other public or private health facility as occupational diseases. In these cases, the causal link between the work and the infection is automatically assumed. Some other countries simply refer to the ILO list of occupational diseases, which mentions that biological agents contracted by the worker at work are considered an occupational disease.
The ISSA recognizes the great challenge that the global society is facing to combat the COVID-19 pandemic. We stand here in solidarity with every worker, every employer and every social security institution; and we offer our prevention resources free of charge to support the transition back to a safe and healthy work life. ISSA’s flagship prevention programme on Vision Zero, offers seven Golden Rules on how to work in a safe and healthy environment. Ensuring that workplaces are safe and healthy is crucial to contain the spread of the virus, and protecting the health of workers, especially those workers who work in medical and care facilities and risk their lives to care for others.