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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

‘Digital dumpsites’ study highlights growing threat to children

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E-waste toxicants. Source: WHO

The health of children, adolescents and expectant mothers worldwide is at risk from the illegal processing of old electrical or electronic devices, the World Health Organization (WHO) said on Tuesday, in a landmark new report on the toxic threat. 

In a statement coinciding with the launch, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus warned that the health threat was growing, in line with the “mounting ‘tsunami of e-waste’”. 

“In the same way the world has rallied to protect the seas and their ecosystems from plastic and microplastic pollution, we need to rally to protect our most valuable resource –the health of our children – from the growing threat of e-waste”, he added. 

A growing pile 

Discarded electronic devices, or e-waste, has become the fastest growing domestic waste category in the world, according to the UN health agency.  

The Global E-waste Statistics Partnership (GESP) said that of the 53.6 million tonnes produced worldwide in 2019, only 17.4 per cent was recorded as collected and appropriately recycled.  

While the fate of the remaining e-waste is unknown, it is unlikely to have been managed and recycled in an environmentally-sound manner.  

Hazards on the heap 

While some e-waste ends up in landfills, significant amounts are often illegally shipped to low and middle-income countries where informal workers, including children and adolescents, pick through, dismantle, or use acid baths to extract valuable metals and materials from the discarded items. 

WHO said that an estimated 12.9 million women who work in the informal waste sector are potentially exposing themselves and their unborn children to toxic residue. 

Additionally, more than 18 million youngsters globally – and some as young as five – are said to be “actively engaged” in the wider industrial sector, of which e-waste processing is a small part.  

‘Devastating’ impact 

Informal methods of removing materials from e-waste have been linked to a range of health effects, especially in children, WHO said.  

Recycling e-waste particularly impacts those in vital stages of physical and neurological development, with children, adolescents and pregnant women most vulnerable. 

Children are more susceptible to the toxic chemicals because they absorb pollutants relative to their size and, with not-fully-developed organs, are less able than adults to eradicate harmful substances. 

“Improper e-waste management is…a rising issue that many countries do not recognize yet as a health problem”, said WHO lead author, Marie-Noel Brune Drisse, warning that if action is not taken now, “its impacts will have a devastating health effect on children and lay a heavy burden on the health sector in the years to come”.  

Call to action  

The Children and Digital Dumpsites report delves into the multiple dimensions of the problem, to practical action that the health sector and others concerned, can take to confront the insidious health risk.  

It calls for binding action by exporters, importers and governments to ensure environmentally sound disposal of e-waste and the health and safety of workers and communities. 

The health sector is also being asked to reduce adverse effects from e-waste by building up capacity to diagnose, monitor and prevent toxic exposure, and to advocate for better data and health research on risks faced by informal e-waste workers. 

“Children and adolescents have the right to grow and learn in a healthy environment, and exposure to electrical and electronic waste and its many toxic components unquestionably impacts that right”, said Maria Neira, WHO Director of the Department of Environment, Climate Change and Health.  

“The health sector can play a role by providing leadership and advocacy, conducting research, influencing policy-makers, engaging communities, and reaching out to other sectors to demand that health concerns be made central to e-waste policies.”

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Landmark G7 agreement pledges 870 million COVID-19 vaccine doses

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G7 leaders plenary: Building back better from COVID19, Cornwall, UK. ©Karwai Tang/G7 Cornwall 2021

A senior UN official welcomed on Sunday, the Group of Seven (G7) leading industrialized nations’ commitment to immediately share at least 870 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines, supporting global access and helping to end the acute phase of the pandemic. 

“Equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines represents the clearest pathway out of this pandemic for all of us — children included, and commitments announced by G7 members…are an important step in this direction”, the Executive Director of the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), Henrietta Fore, said in a statement

Building on the momentum of the G20 Global Health Summit and the Gavi COVAX AMC Summit, in a landmark agreement at the G7 Summit – underway in Cornwall, United Kingdom – the global leaders made the pledge, with the aim of delivering at least half by the end of 2021  

Secretary-General António Guterres had previously said that despite “unequal and very unfair” access to inoculations, “it is in the interest of everybody that everybody gets vaccinated sooner rather than later”.  

The G-7 leaders also reaffirmed their support for the UN-led equitable vaccine distribution initiative COVAX, calling it “the primary route for providing vaccines to the poorest countries”. 

Prompt action, please 

The COVAX alliance, meanwhile, welcomed the G7’s commitment, including their continued support for exporting in significant proportions and for promoting voluntary licensing and not-for-profit global production. 

The partners look forward to “seeing doses flowing to countries” as soon as possible.  

COVAX will work with the G7 and other countries that have stepped up to share doses as rapidly and equitably as possible to help address short-term supply constraints currently impacting the global response to COVID-19 and minimize the prospect of future deadly variants. 

“We have reached a grim milestone in this pandemic: There are already more dead from COVID-19 in 2021 than in all of last year”, lamented Ms. Fore. “Without urgent action, this devastation will continue”. 

Aligning interests 

Noting the need for a “ramp up”, in both the amount and pace of supply, the top UNICEF official attested that when it comes to ending the COVID-19 pandemic, “our best interests and our best natures align. This crisis will not be over until it is over for everyone.” 

The Director General of the World Health Organization (WHO), Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, underscored that many countries are facing a surge in cases, without vaccines.  

“We are in the race of our lives, but it’s not a fair race, and most countries have barely left the starting line”, he said.  

While grateful for the generous announcements of vaccine donations, he stressed, that “we need more, and we need them faster”. 

Time of the essence 

As many high-income countries begin to contemplate post-vaccination life, the future in low-income countries appears quite bleak.  

“We are particularly worried about the surges in South America, Asia and Africa”, said the UNICEF chief. 

Moreover, as the pandemic rages, the virus mutates and produces new variants that could potentially threaten the vaccinated and unvaccinated alike.  

“Donating doses now is smart policy that speaks to our collective best interests”, she continued, adding that in addition to vaccine pledges, “distribution and readiness need clear timelines” as to when they will be available, particularly in countries with poor health infrastructure. 

“The COVID-19 pandemic has upended the lives of children, affecting every aspect of their lives: their health, education, protection and future prosperity. Now, more than ever, what we do today will have significant and lasting impact on our collective tomorrows. There is no time to waste”, she concluded. 

Explanations 

The G7 is made up of Canada, France, Germany, Japan, Italy, UK and United States. 

COVAX was set up by WHO, GAVI the vaccine alliance and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI). It is part of the Access to COVID-19 Tools (ACT) Accelerator to equitably provide COVID-19 diagnostics, treatments and vaccines to all people globally, regardless of their wealth. 

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Vaccine inequity triggers ‘huge disconnect’ between countries

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Although COVID-19 cases and deaths continue to decline globally for a second consecutive week, the UN health agency chief said on Monday that “a huge disconnect” is mounting between some highly vaccinated countries, which see the pandemic as largely resolved, while huge waves of infection continue to grip others where shots are scarce. 

“The pandemic is a long way from over, and it will not be over anywhere until it’s over everywhere”, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO) told journalists once more, at the regular press briefing in Geneva. 

Still under threat 

Tedros pointed to “dramatic increases” in cases, hospitalizations and deaths, in places where the coronavirus had previously been contained and added that new variants, fragile health systems, relaxed public health measures – and shortages of oxygen, dexamethasone and vaccines – were compounding the problem. 

“But there are solutions”, he said, urging people to adhere to physical distancing, continue to wear masks and avoid large gatherings. “Even where cases have dropped, genetic sequencing is critical so that variants can be tracked and measures are not eased prematurely”. 

Urgent financial support needed 

Although WHO has been responding to the surge in India and other flashpoints, immediate additional funding is required to sustain support in all countries experiencing new waves of cases. 

The 2021 response plan is already underfunded, and the vast majority of it is “ring fenced” by donors for specific countries or activities, which is constraining WHO’s ability to provide “an adaptable and scalable response in emerging hotspots”, Tedros said. 

Urgent and flexible funding would allow the UN health agency to scale up support for countries and the ACT Accelerator.  

Set ambitious goals ‘collectively’ 

Meanwhile, the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) outlined a 190 million dose shortfall in the UN-backed COVAX vaccine initiative for equitable COVID inoculations. 

While COVAX has delivered 65 million doses to 124 countries and economies to date, the WHO chief called on manufacturers to publicly commit to sharing their vaccines with COVAX by lifting contractual barriers “within days not months”. 

He also pressed manufacturers to give the right of first refusal to COVAX on any additional doses and encouraged them to make deals with companies willing to use their facilities to produce COVID-19 vaccines. 

“We need to collectively set ambitious goals to at least vaccinate the world’s adult population as quickly as possible”, Tedros underscored. 

Road safety priorities 

Although pandemic lockdowns and telecommuting has led to fewer car journeys and road crashes, the WHO chief pointed to a converse problem caused by drivers’ speeding. This has meant the number of deaths had not decreased proportionately.  

Kicking off UN Road Safety Week, Tedros asked for national and local policy commitments “to deliver 30 kilometre per hour speed limits in urban areas and generate local support for low speed measures overall”. 

Addressing the risk of road traffic deaths is also fundamental to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), specifically those affecting health security, sustainable cities and reducing inequalities among and within countries.  

And policies that tackle the of impact road traffic, and create environments for safe, sustainable and inclusive transport options, also unlock action for protecting the climate and gender equality.  

A paradigm shift in how streets are designed can make streets safe, accessible and equitable for all road users – delivering multiple benefits while accelerating action across interlinking SDGs, according to WHO.

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