by William Cockburn, Interim Executive
Director, European Agency for Safety and Health at Work, Bilbao
The Covid-19 pandemic continues to be one of the biggest challenges that our societies and economies are facing. With most of Europe under lockdown for months in 2020 to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, recently we are again witnessing very high incidence rates, with illnesses and deaths in many countries.
This is putting significant pressure on health systems, but also on businesses. Decision-makers either have to implement new practices or suspend some activities altogether. As the virus will be likely to stay with us for a long while, many policymakers and employers are looking at how we can provide a safe and healthy working environment for both home-based teleworkers and those returning to their usual workplaces.
Guidance for safe and healthy working
Policies and practices must be based on the application of sound occupational safety and health (OSH) principles to minimise the risk of exposure to the virus and minimise its spread. Therefore, at the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work (EU-OSHA), we have compiled a range of guidance for safe and healthy working in the context of Covid-19. This initiative is fully in line with the European Commission’s response to the pandemic, and acts on one of the key priorities of the new EU Strategic Framework on Health and Safety at Work 2021-2027, namely the increasing preparedness to respond to current and future health crises. The collection of resources is available on our website, under the section ‘Healthy Workplaces Stop the Pandemic’
An excellent place to start is Covid-19: Back to the workplace – Adapting workplaces and protecting workers. This EU guidance (available in 25 languages) provides important information on using risk assessment as the starting point for reducing workers’ exposure to the virus and describes how workplaces and work practices can be adapted. It provides over 600 links to guidance specific to sectors from all over Europe and beyond, for example on retail in the Netherlands or construction in Italy.
EU-OSHA has also published step-by-step guidance on getting back to work after Covid-19 infection for managers and workers. The guides explain the challenges that returning workers face after suffering Covid-19, whether affected by acute illness or longer term symptoms, also known as long Covid. They provide simple solutions for both managers and workers on how to manage getting back to work. Tailored to either workers or managers, each guide offers easy-to-follow advice on keeping in touch during sickness leave, the back-to-work interview, measures such as temporary adjustments to working hours or duties, and where to get help.
Furthermore, a joint European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) and EU-OSHA technical report provides an overview of the use of rapid antigen diagnostic tests for SARS-CoV-2 in occupational settings. The report highlights that testing should be used to complement, rather than replace, other safety and health measures to prevent the spread of the virus. It also stresses the importance of involving authorities, workers, employers and occupational health services when developing a testing strategy for the workplace. Good cooperation between OSH and public health actors is vital to ensuring everyone is protected.
In addition, within the existing collection of online interactive risk assessment tools for small and micro enterprises, a new OiRA tool is helping employers carry out their Covid-related online risk assessment. The aim of the tool is to emphasise the importance of adapting work processes to the Covid-19 measures and to assess the consequences for OSH. It contains modules related to the risks associated with deliveries and working on customer premises. It also takes into account companies’ approaches to testing and vaccination.
With Covid-19 demonstrating the impact that biological agents can have on the workplace, it may be also helpful to read more generally about minimising work-related exposure to biological agents.
Understand how the virus is spread
Raising awareness and preparing everyone for the ‘new normal’ in the workplace are vital. It is hugely important that workers and employers alike understand how the virus is spread and how it can be prevented from spreading, so that action plans are implemented consistently by all in the workplace. We have produced several short animated videos as a great way to raise awareness, as they are easy to share.
What’s more, although there are certain jobs and sectors in which workers cannot work from home, teleworking remains an option – or indeed a requirement – for many. For example, our staff have been teleworking throughout the lockdown and we are still offering the possibility to do so. We have produced guidance on making teleworking as safe and effective as possible. The advice covers making sure equipment is safe, maintaining good mental health and keeping moving throughout the day.
For our offices in Bilbao we have also developed a phased back-to-work protocol which is constantly updated, based on the current national and regional advice. Our number one priority is ensuring maximum protection for our staff.
If businesses and organisations base their actions and the information they provide to their workers on accurate and up-to-date knowledge and guidance, the circumstances will be right for a safe, healthy and effective return to the workplace.