As economies, organisations and workers strive to recover from the downturn caused by the public health crisis of COVID-19, there are calls for long-term investment, prevention plans and to revitalise and ‘build back better’, writes Richard Jones, head of policy and regulatory engagement at IOSH.
'Build back better' is a demand that has been made before in the aftermath of previous major disasters, economic shocks and world wars and contributed to landmark developments, like the UK’s National Health Service.
Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, many have bemoaned a lack of global leadership, calling on governments and financial institutions to do more to stimulate national and global economies and invest in new health and social care systems, education and re-skilling, infrastructure revolutions and green technologies. This is seen as a way to provide much-needed employment, as well as supplying new businesses and the better productivity that relies on such infrastructure for its delivery.
Many are keen to retain the health and wellbeing benefits of lockdown transformations, such as cleaner air and less commuting. And many welcome the recognition that frontline workers such as those in health and social care, food supply, waste collection, postal delivery, police and security have finally received, as the dedicated and essential service providers that they are.
Indeed, unsurprisingly, health workers are ranked as the most trusted professions in the world (Ipsos October 2019). And it is a sector with enormous and growing potential impact. Globally, there are 136 million workers in human health and social work activities, many facing serious risk of contracting COVID-19 at work. While for the future, it has been estimated that the care economy could generate more than 475 million jobs around the world by 2030.
Newly alert 2020s
So, for public-policymakers, employers and occupational safety and health (OSH) professionals, COVID-19 has created a once-in-a-generation opportunity to revitalise and ‘design-in’ OSH for the newly alert 2020s and beyond. Whether upskilling and capacity-building in OSH, using automation and new technology, creating physically distanced solutions or supporting green growth, we must build-in social, environmental and economic sustainability. The strong link between occupational and public health that has been forged during COVID-19, should be expanded and maximised to ‘build back better’.
Workplaces must continue to teach people, not only about preventing contagion, but also about effectively managing other OSH risks too. This includes preventing work-related illnesses like occupational cancers, musculoskeletal disorders and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, which wreak such a high human and economic toll, protecting the vulnerable and raising awareness of health and wellbeing improvement initiatives to tackle life-style disease and improve general health.
Search for solutions
When much of what we all thought could never ever happen in peacetime, has now happened – hundreds of thousands of premature deaths; schools, workplaces and entertainment venues all closed; and people not visiting friends and family – the view of what’s possible has naturally expanded, as people search for solutions.
The OSH profession needs to seize this opportunity to strengthen its role supporting resilience, sustainability and public health, through designing ‘good work’. We can help re-design activities and industries to be more human-centred, so that we ensure that all work is built back better and healthier.
This is vital for the future when we consider the ILO’s powerful assertion that in our hyperconnected world-unsafe practices anywhere, pose a threat to health everywhere.
The message is a compelling one. Risk intelligent organisations that successfully manage safety and health, can underpin thriving communities and prosperous societies, and benefit from them too. Health and safety is a key part of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals and is a fundamental right for all workers and all job types and the necessary OSH capacity must now be developed.
'A "Revitalise 2.0" agenda must be about capacity-building and also be informed by the strengths and weaknesses that COVID-19 has highlighted'
The WHO manifesto for a healthy and green COVID-19 recovery highlights that cost-cutting on emergency planning, health systems and social and environmental protection is a “false economy”. It warns that international response-systems were too weak and slow to halt transmission during this pandemic. Worryingly, even pre-declaration of the COVID pandemic, the World Economic Forum had already identified health systems across the world as '…at risk of becoming unfit for purpose'.
So, what have we learned and what areas do we need to build back better? A ‘Revitalise 2.0’ agenda must be about capacity-building and also be informed by the strengths and weaknesses that COVID-19 has highlighted. We must prepare better for pandemics, with the necessary testing, tracing and isolation systems, the personal protective equipment, medical supplies and trained personnel and continue to research vaccines and treatments.
But we must also build healthier populations, and this means healthcare and social security provision, decent work, and workplaces that both protect and improve people’s physical and mental health. Investment in low-carbon solutions can create new jobs, with companies prioritising products and services that boost employment and cut emissions – such as renewable energies, retrofitting of buildings, clean transport and technologies that decarbonise heavy industries.
Among the many priorities, there needs to be long-term planning and commitment to provide:
- education to develop risk intelligent individuals, organisations and societies
- investment in health and social care systems, infrastructure, green jobs and research
- efforts to ensure less pollution and cleaner air and water
- ability to walk and cycle safely, with more pedestrian and cycle lanes and workplace facilities
- new support for all our frontline services to ensure workers are properly protected against communicable diseases, work-related stress and other workplace risks
- more family-friendly work-practices that protect work-life balance and include the right to switch off and provide ongoing occupational and mental health support
- better supply chain management so that surges in demand do not compromise workers' health and safety and modern slavery is tackled
- more OSH capacity and resourcing in developing economies and sectors worldwide.
Importantly, as activities are gradually and cautiously resumed, we must remember that the physical and psychological effects of this pandemic will be long-lasting and that, for many people, their lives will never be the same again. Ongoing support and focus on prevention will be needed to ensure we revitalise well and create safe, healthy and green workplaces, communities and societies.