The pandemic emphasizes the lack of protection of the health and well-being of health workers

Health workers around the world need much safer working conditionss to combat the dangerous neglect they have suffered during the coronavirus pandemic. COVID-19they underlined this Monday the World Health Organization (WHO) and the International Labor Organization (ILO).

According to data from these agencies, some 115,500 health workers died from COVID-19 in the first 18 months of the pandemic due to the systemic lack of safeguards related to their work.

Yun Liu

ICU staff working to save COVID-19 patients in Wuhan, China, in April 2020

Pre-pandemic shortcomings

The director of the WHO Department of Environment, Climate Change and Health pointed out that even before the pandemic, the health sector was already among the most dangerous areas to work in.

“Only a few health centers had occupational health and safety management programs. Health workers suffered from infections, disorders and musculoskeletal injuries, workplace violence and harassment, burnout and allergies because of the bad work environment”, stated María Neira.

Given the “high additional cost” that those professionals have paid and the pressure that the pandemic continues to put on them, UN agencies produced guidance on the development and implementation of stronger occupational health and safety programs for employees in the sector.

The new guidelines cover all occupational hazards of health workers: infectious, ergonomic, physical, chemical and psychosocial.

The WHO and the ILO argued that countries that have developed or are implementing occupational health and safety programs in the field of sanitation have registered fewer work-related injuries and fewer sick daysas well as improvements in the work environment, productivity and retention of workers.


A young woman in a Ukrainian hospital bed with COVID-19 is cared for by a doctor and her mother.

© UNICEF/Evgeniy Maloletka

A young woman in a Ukrainian hospital bed with COVID-19 is cared for by a doctor and her mother.

Exhaustion

The director of the Department of Health Personnel of the WHO explained that absences due to illness and exhaustion “exacerbated pre-existing shortages of health workers and undermined the capacities of health systems to respond to the increased demand for care and prevention during the crisis.”

In this context, James Campbell indicated that the guide offers recommendations “on how learn from this experience and better protect” those workers.

The document advocates systemic improvements in protecting the health, safety and well-being of health professionals in the recovery from COVID-19.

Currently, more than a third of health centers no hygiene posts for workers and less than a sixth of the countries have a national policy that favors a healthy and safe work environment in the health sector.


This doctor at a community hospital in the Philippines wears proper personal protective equipment.  The doctor leads a group of volunteer health professionals who care for COVID-19 patients.

UN Women/Louie Pacardo

This doctor at a community hospital in the Philippines wears proper personal protective equipment. The doctor leads a group of volunteer health professionals who care for COVID-19 patients.

Investment in protection programs

The guide also argues that continued investment, training, monitoring and collaboration are essential to sustain progress in the implementation of the programs that are put in place to take care of those workers essential.

According to Alette van Leur, director of the ILO Sectoral Policies Department, effective mechanisms must be established to ensure continuous collaboration between employers, managers and health workerswith the aim of protecting health and safety at work.

“Healthcare workers, like all other workers, should enjoy their right to decent workto safe and healthy work environments and to social protection in terms of health care, sick leave and occupational diseases and injuries”, he said.

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