Health and safety is paramount for return to work

Ensuring health and safety in workplaces must be the highest priority as people return to work in many countries emerging from COVID-19 restrictions and closures.

“Drastic public health measures were, and in many cases still are, needed to tackle the initial waves of COVID infections around the world. Re-opening workplaces is much more complicated than closing them, and it is crucial that occupational health and safety regulations, procedures and systems provide the basis for return to work, as well as in situations where work has continued. Social dialogue and negotiations between employers and unions are central to this. Arrangements which are simply imposed on workers without consultation and union involvement pose a much higher risk, both to working people and to the public in general. All the evidence shows that workplaces, whether health and care facilities, transport systems, public venues and other places where workers come into contact with the public, or processing facilities, offices and other places where significant numbers of workers are together, are major vectors for the spread of the virus. Good occupational health and safety protects workers, members of their households and the public,” said Sharan Burrow, ITUC General Secretary.

Important guidance on return to work has been issued by the International Labour Organization, which stresses the need for a rights-based approach, embedded in occupational health and safety frameworks.

Protecting health and safety is one of the primary responsibilities of unions, which have important expertise and often have specialised research and training functions. In the UK, agreements have been reached with several major companies that union health and safety representatives will provide advice and guidance to companies in their supply chains, while in Scotland, the government, health and safety authorities, local governments and the police are recommending that the specialist union representatives have access to all workplaces so that all workers and employers can benefit from their expertise.

“Others should follow these examples, which recognise the scale and complexities of the return to work, and mobilise capabilities that are needed in every workplace. This is all the more important where workers for platform businesses such as app-based personal transport are wrongly classified as ‘independent’ or ‘gig’ workers and thus deprived of employment status and union protections. And we cannot assume that COVID-19 will be gone tomorrow. It will be with us for a long time, and resilience, both for people’s health and for regenerating and sustaining economic activity, is dependent on safe and healthy workplaces,” said Burrow.

The ITUC is also calling for COVID-19 to be classified as an occupational disease under national regulatory frameworks with an official occupational disease reporting and recording requirement, both for preventative reasons and for workers’ compensation.