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Risky business: COVID-19 and safety at work

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Photo: UN Women Asia-Pacific

The numbers of home workers around the world  have been swelled by the COVID-19 pandemic, putting a fresh focus on the need for employers to ensure that their employees are working in a safe environment. On the World Day for Safety and Health at Work, we look at some of the ways the UN is helping employers and governments to keep people safe, wherever they work.

The world of work has been upended by COVID-19, and the effects are likely to be long-lasting. Before the pandemic, there were some 260 million home-based workers (not including domestic or care workers). The International Labour Organisation (ILO) estimates that figure could have doubled, with as many as one in three workers remote working in North America and Europe, and one in six in sub-Saharan Africa.

The rollout of vaccines, mainly in the developed world,  has increased the possibilities of a return to the workplace, but many companies and workers have signalled a wish to retain a degree of home working, after seeing some of the benefits. For employers, these include minimising the risk of contagion and  potentially spending less on expensive office space whilst staff no longer have to spend commuting to and from the workplace.

‘If you’re losing your mind, I’m right there with you’

However, whilst some are enjoying baking bread or taking a stroll during a conference call, and using the commuting time to indulge in new pursuits, others have been craving a return to a more structured work-life routine.

“I tell myself daily that I am grateful to have a job with understanding supervisors and colleagues. But all of it is hard. If you’re also a working mum losing her mind daily, know that I’m right there with you,” says Paulina, a New York-based teleworker.

“I have chaired meetings with a laptop and headphones on one side of a tiny, New York City kitchen while cooking lunch and having a screaming toddler wrapped around my ankles. While all of this is cute once or maybe twice, regular screams of children in the background can only be tolerated for so long. I should know, because I passed that line sometime in July.”

Stories such as this explain why a recent study by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) found that 41 per cent of people who worked from home considered themselves highly stressed, compared to 25 per cent of those who worked on-site.

“The most effective way to eliminate the risk of contagion in a work context is, for those who can do it, teleworking, says Joaquim Nunes, head of occupational health and safety at the ILO, “But we still need to pay attention to the physical and mental well-being of workers”.

As teleworking is likely to remain an important factor in many people’s jobs, Mr. Nunes says that work-related policies will have to be updated to reflect the new reality.

“There’s a good chance that the rise of teleworking during the COVID-19 pandemic will permanently change how we live and work. Many governments have realised this, and are taking a fresh look at the rights of employees working from home. For example, companies should ensure that workers do not feel isolated, whilst giving them the right to disconnect, rather than being online 24 hours a day”.

In Chile, a law adopted early in March 2020 goes some way to addressing some of these concerns. The legislation recognizes the right of remote workers to disconnect for at least 12 continuous hours in a 24-hour period. In addition, employers cannot require workers to respond to communications on rest days or holidays.

A healthy home?

Beyond the question of comfort and mental health, is one of physical safety. It is often said that most accidents happen at home, so, if this is where much of the working week is spent, should employers be responsible for making sure apartments aren’t death traps?

“For now, there are no easy answers when it comes to ensuring a suitable home office environment”, says Mr. Nunes. “However, we can say that the same principles that apply to other workplaces apply to teleworkers, in that employers have a general duty of care, as reasonably practicable. Employers can’t control the workplace when staff are working from home, but they can provide ergonomic equipment to workers, such as suitable chairs, and help them to assess their own risks and to learn about how to maintain healthy lifestyles.”

Teleworking is also challenging for enforcement agencies, as usually inspectors do not have free access to the private spaces. One solution to ensure compliance with legislation could be virtual inspections, which are already taking place in Nordic countries on a voluntary basis. “These involve labour inspectors video calling a worker at home, and being shown their work chair, desk, and lighting setup”, explains Mr. Nunes. “These inspections can serve as a way to monitor the home workplace and provide advice, but also raise understandable privacy concerns”.

Frontline fears

Whilst the new teleworkers and their employers grappled with their new reality, a large part of the global workforce had no choice but to go to a physical place of work. The difficulties faced by health care workers were widely reported, but employees in several other industries had to brave the trip to the workplace – sometimes on crowded trains and buses – and, often, interact with other people, at considerable risk to their health.

In the US, these fears led to collective action by workers at Whole Foods, a grocery subsidiary of Amazon. On March 31, 2020, in response to seeing their colleagues testing positive with COVID-19, workers decided to call in sick, and demand sick leave, free coronavirus testing and hazard pay. This was followed in April by work stoppages at some of America’s biggest companies, including Walmart, Target and FedEx.

Whilst early advice on protection and prevention focused on measures such as hand washing, the wearing of masks and gloves, and physical distancing, the ILO quickly realised that more needed to be done to address work-related issues.

“In the workplace, you have to think about more than just the individual worker: the whole environment needs to be protected’, explains Mr. Nunes. “One example that many of us will have come across is in shops and supermarkets, where it is now common to see PVC separators between cashiers and customers. Work surfaces are also being cleaned much more frequently, but this raises other concerns that need to be addressed, such as the potential for skin complaints or respiratory problems caused by the chemicals in cleaning products.”

Whilst areas such as healthcare and retail have been grappling with these issues for several months, other parts of the economy could soon be opening up. In several countries, plans are being made to allow gatherings of large numbers of people to take place, in venues such as concert halls and cinemas, and, heading into summer in the northern hemisphere, the range of permitted tourist activities looks set to expand.

However, for this to take place, and for economies to safely open, governments and employers, in collaboration with workers, will need to make sure that workers in these, and all other industries, are safe at their workplaces, and confident they will not be exposed to unnecessary risks, particularly those related to COVID-19.

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Health & Wellness

WHO urges caution over travel bans linked to new COVID-19 variant

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The UN health agency has urged all countries to adopt a risk-based and scientific approach to travel bans linked to a new COVID-19 variant identified in South Africa and Botswana.

The development on Friday came as a World Health Organization (WHO) panel prepared to meet to assess the potential impact of a new coronavirus variant identified as B 1.1.529.

According to WHO’s COVID-19 technical lead, Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove the information is still limited.

“There are fewer than 100 whole genome sequences that are available, we don’t know very much about this yet. What we do know is that this variant has a large number of mutations, and the concern is that when you have so many mutations it can have an impact on how the virus behaves”, she said during a Q&A on Twitter.

Dr. Van Kerkhove explained that researchers are currently trying to determine where the mutations are and what they potentially mean for diagnostics, therapeutics, and vaccines.

“It will take a few weeks for us to understand what impact this variant has, there’s a lot of work that is underway. It’s a variant that’s under monitoring. The (WHO) technical advisory group will discuss if it will become a variant of interest or a variant of concern and if that’s the case, we will give it a Greek name, but it is something to watch”, she added.

‘Do not discriminate’

The expert thanked researchers from South Africa and Botswana for openly sharing information to the UN health agency.

“Everyone out there: do not discriminate against countries that share their findings openly”, she urged, as countries such as Britain, France and Israel have moved to cancel direct flights from South Africa and surrounding nations.

According to South African health authorities so far fewer than 100 cases of the new variant have been confirmed, largely among young people who have the lowest vaccination rate in the country.

“Countries can do a lot already in terms of surveillance and sequencing and work together with the affected countries or globally and scientifically to fight this variant and understand more about it so that we know how to go about…so at this point implementing travel measures is being cautioned against”, WHO spokesperson Christian Lindmeier told journalists in Geneva.

Protect yourself and others

The WHO officials reminded previous advice: people can do a lot to protect themselves from COVID, including by continuing to wear masks and avoiding crowds.

“Everybody that’s out there needs to understand that the more this virus circulates the more opportunities the virus has to change, the more mutations we will see”, said Dr. Van Kerkhove.

“Get vaccinated when you can, make sure you receive the full course of your doses and make sure you take steps to reduce your exposure and prevent yourself from passing that virus to someone else”, she added.

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Tobacco use continues to fall, but still ‘long way to go’

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The number of tobacco users continues to decrease globally, going from 1.32 billion in 2015 to 1.30 billion last year, the World Health Organization (WHO) said onTuesday.  

And according to the fourth WHO global tobacco trends report, that number is expected to continue to drop to 1.27 billion by 2025.   

Sixty countries are now on track to achieving the voluntary global target of a 30% per cent reduction by 2025, an increase from two years ago, when only 32 countries were on course.

Encouraging news 

For WHO Director-General Tedros Ghebreyesus, the numbers are very encouraging, but more work must be done. 

“We still have a long way to go, and tobacco companies will continue to use every trick in the book to defend the gigantic profits they make from peddling their deadly wares”, Tedros said.  

According to WHO, recent evidence shows that the tobacco industry used the COVID-19 pandemic to build influence with Governments in 80 States. 

The report urges Member States to accelerate implementation of the measures outlined in the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (WHO FCTC).  

Ruediger Krech, Director of WHO Department of Health Promotion, attributed some of the progress to measures aligned with the WHO FCTC, while maintaining that success is “fragile.” 

“It is clear that tobacco control is effective, and we have a moral obligation to our people to move aggressively in order to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) link”, he said.  

Good investment 

A newly released WHO Global Investment Case for Tobacco Cessation, also makes the case for investing in cessation interventions. 

According to the report, contributing US$ 1.68 per capita each year to national toll-free quit lines, SMS-based support, and other interventions could help 152 million tobacco users successfully quit by 2030.  

The report and the investment case were released right after the ninth session of the Conference of the Parties to the Protocol to Eliminate Illicit Trade in Tobacco Products.Protocol to Eliminate Illicit Trade in Tobacco Products

Key findings 

Last year, 22.3% per cent of the global population used tobacco, 36.7 per cent of all men and 7.8 per cent of the world’s women. 

Approximately 38 million children between the ages of 13 and 15 currently use tobacco, 13 million girls and 25 million boys.  While it is illegal for minors to purchase it, the goal is to achieve zero child tobacco users. 

On average, upper middle-income countries are making the slowest progress, but with data quality low or insufficient  in 29 countries, more monitoring is needed to assess a trend. 

Regions 

Of all WHO regions, the steepest decline is in the Americas, where the average user rate dropped from 21 per cent in 2010 to 16 per cent last year. 

In Africa, the rate fell from 15 per cent to 10 per cent and the continent continues to have the lowest numbers.  

In Europe, 18% per cent of women still use tobacco, substantially more than in any other WHO region, while all others are on track to reduce women’s usage rates by at least 30% per cent by 2025. 

Although South-East Asia has the highest rates, with around 432 million users or 29 per cent of its population, it is also the region in which the numbers are declining fastest. 

Finally, the Western Pacific is projected to become the region with the highest use among men, with indications showing that more than 45% per cent will still be using tobacco in 2025. 

According to WHO, this product kills more than 8 eight million people each year, over 7 seven million of whom die as a direct result of smoking tobacco while around 1.2 million others from second-hand smoke. 

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Europe hits highest weekly COVID-19 cases since pandemic began

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Almost two million cases of COVID-19 were reported in Europe last week, the most in a single week in that region since the pandemic started, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).  

Almost 27 thousand deaths were reported in the continent last week, more than half of all COVID-19 deaths globally.  

Speaking to journalists in Geneva, WHO Director-General Tedros Ghebreyesus explained that the virus is not only surging in countries with lower vaccination rates in Eastern Europe, but also in nations with some of the world’s highest vaccination rates in Western Europe.  

“It’s another reminder, as we have said again and again, that vaccines do not replace the need for other precautions”, Tedros said. “Vaccines reduce the risk of hospitalization, severe disease and death, but they do not fully prevent transmission”. 

A ‘must-stop’ scandal 

WHO continues to recommend the proportionate use of testing, masks, physical distancing, improved ventilation, and other measures.  

“With the right mix of measures, it’s possible for countries to find the balance between keeping transmission down and keeping their societies and economies open”, Tedros assured. “No country can simply vaccinate its way out of the pandemic”. 

According to the WHO chief, “it makes no sense” to give boosters to healthy adults, or to vaccinate children, when health workers, older people and other high-risk groups around the world are still waiting for their first dose.  

Every day, there are six times more boosters administered globally than primary doses in low-income countries, which Tedros described as “a scandal that must stop now”. 

COVAX 

The WHO chief also provided an update on COVAX, the UN-led worldwide initiative aimed at equitable access to vaccines. 

The tool has now shipped almost 500 million vaccines to 144 countries and territories. And with exception of Eritrea and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, all States have begun vaccinating. 

“The vast majority of countries are ready to get doses into arms, but they need the doses”, Tedros said.   

To reach the target of vaccinating 40 per cent of every country’s population by the end of this year, 550 million doses more are needed – about 10 days’ worth of production.  Is this correct Alex? 

Measles 

The pandemic has had effects on other vaccination campaigns, explained Tedros. 

report by WHO and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, released this week, shows that more than 22 million infants missed their first dose of measles vaccine last year – three million more than in 2019 – marking the largest increase in two decades.   

A total of 24 measles vaccination campaigns in 23 countries were postponed because of the pandemic, leaving more than 93 million people at risk.  

Compared with 2019, however, reported cases decreased by more than 80 per cent.  

“But this decrease is cause for concern, not celebration”, said Tedros, explaining that measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 may have contributed, noting that lab specimens sent for testing were the lowest in a decade.  

“The drop in vaccination, combined with weak monitoring, testing and reporting, create the ideal conditions for explosive outbreaks of measles”, he said.  

Diabetes 

On Sunday, World Diabetes Day will mark the 100th anniversary of insulin, which has made a deadly disease manageable for nine million people with type 1 diabetes.  

For more than 60 million people living with type 2 diabetes, insulin is essential in reducing the risk of kidney failure, blindness and limb amputation.  

“The scientists who first discovered insulin a century ago refused to profit from their discovery and sold the patent for just one dollar”, recalled Tedros. “Unfortunately, that gesture of solidarity has been overtaken by a multi-billion-dollar business that has created vast access gaps”. 

One in every two people who need insulin for type 2 diabetes does not get it.

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