The pandemic has highlighted how public health and workers’ safety are closely intertwined.
The Covid-19 pandemic is not only a public-health issue but very much an occupational health issue. The workplace provides fertile ground for the transmission of the virus.
If the European Union and its member states fail to guarantee health and safety for all workers, it will be more difficult to provide essential activities during lockdowns and to recover from the crisis. Trade unions are therefore calling on the European Commission to formally recognise coronavirus as an occupational disease and take more action—together with member states and employers—to protect workers.
European Trade Union Institute research shows that EU governments have done far too little to counter workplace risks from the pandemic. Work is one of the main channels of transmission and social inequalities have put some groups in greater danger than others. Yet authorities and employers across Europe have failed to provide adequate protective equipment for high-risk, front-line carers or to implement full safety measures for workers in healthcare, transport, retail and other sectors. This may well have contributed to the failure of lockdown measures in most European countries.
Data on hospital admissions and deaths are not broken down by occupation but very early in the first wave it became clear some jobs carried high risk. Considering health workers alone, according to the European Public Service Union (EPSU), by July more than 3,400 were infected in Denmark, more than 13,400 in Germany, 8,130 in Ireland, over 28,000 in Italy and 52,400 in Spain. The largest numbers of reported deaths among healthcare workers were in Spain, Italy and the United Kingdom. In Germany there were 9,671 infections, 412 hospitalisations and 48 deaths among workers caring for the elderly, disabled and other vulnerable groups.
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Heeding calls from the European trade union movement, the European Parliament and the Council of the EU, the European Commission has announced in its work programme for next year a new EU strategic framework on health and safety at work. This is the moment for the EU and its member states to act on principle 10 of the European Pillar of Social Rights, guaranteeing workers ‘the right to a high level of protection of their health and safety at work’. The European Trade Union Confederation has identified nine priorities, including setting out a ‘vision zero’ on work-related cancers and fatal accidents, involving social partners (employers and unions), improving data collection and enforcing safety rules more effectively. But the new EU strategy also needs to draw lessons from the Covid-19 pandemic.
Despite the lockdown, many people do not have the option of working from home. Carers, teachers, transport workers, cleaners, industrial, construction and shop workers and many others have to be where the job is. Employers must take steps to prevent infection through risk assessment and management, carried out with staff and unions. This means applying, at company level, the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work (EU-OSHA) guidance, Adapting workplaces and protecting workers, which offers specific advice covering sectors such as construction, retail, domestic services, education, policing, transport, care services and more, to enable people to carry out or return to their jobs safely.
Women are more likely to be employed in domains, such as care homes, which are particularly vulnerable to infection. The virus is not gender-neutral and, where schools have closed and children have been forced to stay at home, the extra stress for women—whether single parents or struggling to combine teleworking with childcare—has exacerbated psychosocial problems.
According to the European Working Conditions Survey, people regularly working from home are twice as likely to work 48 hours or more a week and six times more likely to work in their free time than others, while isolation and anxiety affect their mental health. In 2002, the ETUC concluded a European framework agreement with employers on the regulation of telework. With so many workers now forced to treat their homes as office space, employers must respect that agreement by applying the same working hours and conditions, the ‘right to disconnect’, measures to avoid isolation, and the equipment and technical support to make home workstations safe and comfortable—not least to avoid a serious increase in musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs).
The ETUC has already called for European legislation on MSDs and has joined Eurocadres in campaigning for an EU directive to clarify employers’ responsibilities in combating stress. MSDs continue to be among the most prevalent work-related health problems in Europe and the ETUC is a partner in the EU-OSHA 2020-22 campaign, focused on prevention.
The Covid-19 virus is now covered by the EU’s Biological Agents Directive—a welcome move but the risk associated with the virus could have been classified as higher. There is a need to examine room for improvement in the classification system of the directive and to make sure that member states protect all workers exposed to the virus. The ETUC therefore believes the directive needs to be updated in light of lessons learnt from the pandemic.
The crisis has highlighted the insecurity surrounding non-standard and self-employed workers, economically and in terms of health—they need the same protection as others. And the appalling living and working conditions of many mobile and migrant workers in Europe make them especially vulnerable to infection. The new EU strategic framework should address this unacceptable abuse and ensure employers fulfil their obligations to provide safe, hygienic workplaces and accommodation, working through EU-OSHA and the European Labour Authority.
While some employers have failed to respect or implement national or sectoral health-and-safety requirements, enforcement has been undermined by the shortfall in inspections. Member states have to reinforce labour inspectorate capacity, to reach the International Labour Organization’s recommended level of at least one inspector per 10,000 workers. Trade union workplace health-and-safety representatives also need a strong role in ensuring health-and-safety laws and agreements are implemented, to tackle the coronavirus effectively.
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Finally, if trade unions or individual workers are not satisfied that workplaces are safe, they must be able to exercise the right to withdraw their labour until better protection is in place. In Belgium in May, most bus and tram drivers working for the Brussels public-transport company stopped work, after management challenged some safety measures in expectation of higher passenger numbers when lockdown was lifted.
Safeguarding occupational health is an integral part of the fight against Covid-19 across society. If workers are not protected, the whole of society is in danger.
Per Hilmersson is deputy general secretary of the European Trade Union Confederation.