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Lack of workplace safety could trigger second wave of coronavirus, ILO warns

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The International Labour Organization (ILO) has warned that without adequate safeguards for returning workers there could be a second wave of the virus.

As the pressure mounts on countries to ease their lockdown restrictions the ILO has urged governments to take action to prevent and control COVID-19 in the workplace, with active involvement and dialogue with employers’ and workers’ organisations.

All employers need to carry out risk assessments and ensure their workplaces meet strict occupational safety and health criteria beforehand, to minimise the risk to workers of exposure to COVID-19, the ILO said in a statement on Tuesday.

Without such controls, countries face the very real risk of a resurgence of the virus.

Putting in place the necessary measures will minimise the risk of a second wave of contagion contracted at the workplace, it added.

To prevent transmission of the virus and safeguard workers in the country, the ILO, Bangladesh office has developed COVID-19 specific OSH guidelines, together with the Department of Inspection for Factories and Establishments (DIFE).

Furthermore, the ILO is recommending employment retention through work-sharing and reskilling, in addition to essential social protection measures to ensure access to subsistence allowance, basic healthcare and income security for formal and informal sector workers here in Bangladesh.

“The safety and health of our entire workforce is paramount today. In the face of an infectious disease outbreak, how we protect our workers now clearly dictates how safe our communities are, and how resilient our businesses will be, as this pandemic evolves,” said the Director-General of the ILO, Guy Ryder. 

“It is only by implementing occupational safety and health measures that we can protect the lives of workers, their families and the larger communities, ensure work continuity and economic survival,” Mr Ryder added.  

In particular, risk control measures should be specifically adapted to the needs of workers at the frontline of the pandemic.

These include health workers, nurses, doctors and emergency workers, as well as those in food retail and cleaning services.

The ILO also highlighted the needs of the most vulnerable workers and businesses, in particular those in the informal economy, migrant and domestic workers.

Measures to protect these workers should include - among others - education and training on safe and healthy work practices, free provision of PPE as needed, access to public health services and livelihood alternatives.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the urgent need for strong national programmes to protect the health and safety of health workers, medical professionals, emergency responders, and the many other workers risking their lives on our behalf,” said Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General.

“On World Day for Safety and Health at Work, I call on all countries to assure well-defined, decent and safe working conditions for all health workers."

To ensure a safe return to work and to avoid further work disruptions, the ILO recommended mapping hazards and assessing risks of contagion in relation to all work operations, and continuing to assess them following a return to work. 

It suggested adopting risk control measures adapted to each sector and the specifics of each workplace and workforce.

These may include reducing physical interactions between workers, contractors, customers and visitors and respecting physical distancing when any interactions occur, improving ventilation in the workplace, regularly cleaning surfaces, ensuring workplaces are clean and hygienic, and providing adequate facilities for handwashing and sanitisation, providing Personal Protective Equipment (PPEs) to workers where necessary and at no cost.

Other recommendations included providing arrangements for isolating suspected cases and tracing every contact, providing mental health support for staff, providing training, education and informational material about health and safety at work, including proper hygiene practices and the use of any workplace controls (including PPE), it added.

ILO Country Director in Bangladesh Tuomo Poutiainen said the COVID-19 pandemic is posing enormous challenges for governments, employers and workers everywhere as they try to protect safety and health at work, while also addressing the needs for the society and the economy to re-open.

One outcome of the current crisis is the need to step up investments in public health, social protection and Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) in the formal and informal sectors, he said, adding that ultimately the well-being of “our communities and our economies depends on how well we protect our workers".

As some industries begin to slowly resume operations, the ILO has developed a three-pronged strategy to ensure a safer return to work. The first step is the adoption of several safety and health measures at work based on dialogue between employers and workers, and a shared understanding of coronavirus risks.

The ILO is committed to working in unison with the Bangladesh government, employers and workers to help protect the nation’s millions of workers against the ravages of COVID-19, hunger and poverty.

ILO expressed its heartfelt gratitude to all frontline workers – in hospitals, grocery stores, law enforcement, armed forces, DIFE, utility companies, delivery services, banks, voluntary organisations – and all the dedicated men and women who are responding to the needs during this pandemic.

It also thanked those who are working from home to keep the economy moving while protecting themselves and others.

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