IOSH researcher Dr Karen Michell on occupational health and interdisciplinary collaboration after the pandemic.
COVID-19, as a health emergency, has permeated every aspect of our lives. It has compelled us to adjust, or change, our view of normal. Social distancing, working from home (WFH) and self-isolation make up our ‘new normal’, while hand sanitisers and face coverings have become our 'new' accessorises.
Despite furloughed workers and appeals to WFH, a significant number of key workers continued working, including occupational health practitioners (OHPs) who found themselves in uncharted territory. They were required to provide guidance on how best to manage and contain the transmission of COVID-19, while being at high risk of becoming infected due to their contact with clients.
For the first time in my career, the ‘silent H’ in occupational safety and health (OSH) received the attention it so rightly deserves. From one OHP: 'COVID19 has shown business the critical importance of the OHP who is privy to the health risks of workers… The OHP completes the COVID-19 risk assessment and manages vulnerable staff, and is now regarded as a critical part of the business and not a “necessary evil”.'
OHPs faced a significant challenge protecting key workers through the pandemic while they were categorised as a high-risk group. While the science behind of this disease evolves, we continue to expect healthcare workers to put themselves at risk.
OHPs should be part of our new normal, where the OHP contribution is one of sustained recognition
Future challenges are posed by the return to work (RTW) initiative. Challenges include screening workers as they leave lockdown and return to work, many anxious and fearful; and regular monitoring to ensure workers remain unaffected by COVID-19 and do not pose a health threat to others.
Some studies suggest workers previously infected with COVID-19 may experience residual physical and psychological health effects, ranging from increased fatigue to impaired respiratory function, possibly impacting their ability to continue with usual work activities. This is compounded by the recorded pronounced negative impact on mental health with conditions such as burnout, depressive symptoms and post-traumatic stress disorder.
COVID-19 has highlighted the need to manage the health of vulnerable workers including; those with comorbidities, such as chronic respiratory disease and cancer; those on the age threshold and ethnic minority groups.
If COVID-19 has taught OSH professionals anything, it is the relevance of the OHP. Health screening and monitoring will continue to be used to manage COVID-19, reinforcing the role of the OHP. OSH practitioners ensure safe work environments but returning workers need to be medically assessed to determine their suitability to work and to identify where work modifications will facilitate safe return.
OHPs should be part of our new normal, where the OHP contribution is one of sustained recognition. Healthcare workers, including OHPs, have been recognised as heroes through this pandemic – let them not become yesterday’s heroes.