In many cities affected by the COVID-19 outbreak a nightly ritual has been taking place whereby people applaud and bang pots and pans from their windows and their balconies to show gratitude to the many health workers braving the battle against COVID-19.
Health workers around the world are at the frontline of the daily battle to contain the virus and save lives. Pictures of them, exhausted, fighting to save patients have touched the world. The occupational safety and health of health workers is fundamental to enable them doing their jobs during this crisis. Their protection must be a priority.
So what needs to be done?
1. Keep health workers safe
Ensuring the safety and health of health workers and support personnel (e.g. laundry staff, cleaners and workers dealing with medical waste) is of the utmost importance.
Information on the transmission of the disease should be shared with health workers as widely and as quickly as possible, including information on the most recent guidelines, measures to prevent contagion and how they should be implemented. Dialogue between health workers and employers can ensure policies and procedures are being implemented in an appropriate manner.
The availability of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) is critical, as well as training and education on how to use such equipment correctly. Moreover, testing for COVID-19 infection should be made available for health workers as widely as possible, to support both worker health and patient safety.
2. Protect their mental health
The pandemic confronts health workers with exceptionally demanding situations. In addition to a heavy workload, and at times traumatic situations with difficult decisions and unprecedented mortality rates, health workers must cope with the fear of contracting the disease or spreading it to their family and friends.
Lessons from other outbreaks, such as the Ebola epidemic in West Africa in 2014, showed that health workers may experience discrimination and stigma, due to the public’s fear of contracting the disease.
Providing social support within teams, families and friends, along with information and guidance for health workers on how to deal with stress and post-traumatic stress counselling, needs to be an integral part of the response.
3. Monitoring hours of work
In emergency situations, health workers are required to work under irregular and sometimes atypical conditions. In response to the outbreak many health workers are facing heavy additional workloads, long working hours and a lack of rest periods.
With many countries shutting down schools and public life, they also have to organize their private lives and look after dependants.
There should be appropriate working time arrangements to help health workers balance health service requirements with their care responsibilities at home and their own well-being.
4. Protect short-term recruits and volunteers
To fight the pandemic, several countries have reacted by seeking professional assistance from short-term recruits, volunteers, other sectors such as the military, retired health workers or medical and nursing students.
While these measures appear encouraging, because they secure the care needed, they should be carefully implemented to ensure these workers have the same employment protection as other workers.
Governments should consult with social partners to monitor and regulate such ad-hoc recruitments, as appropriate. As well as occupational safety and health, other terms and conditions of employment need to be addressed, such as social protection, remuneration, rest periods and working time arrangements.
5. Recruit and train more health workers
Investments need to be made in all health systems so that they can recruit, deploy and retain sufficient numbers of well-trained, supported and motivated health workers. The COVID-19 pandemic once again underlines the urgent need for a strong health workforce as an integral part of every resilient health system, and this is now recognized as essential foundation for the recovery of our societies and economies, and preparedness for future health emergencies.
By Christiane Wiskow (Health sector specialist), Maren Hopfe (Technical officer, health sector), Sectoral Policies Department