First-person perspectives on the world of work
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The Future of Work Podcast

Episode 5
Occupational Safety and Health

Why we need to invest now in resilient occupational safety and health systems

29 April 2021

Safety and Health in the workplace has been massively affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. As we mark World Day for Safety and Health and Work, Manal Azzi, Senior Occupational Safety and Health Specialist at the ILO, joins us to discuss the vital role that safe workplaces play for crisis recovery and prevention.

Drawing on lessons learned from dealing with the pandemic, she lays out some of the strategies outlined in a new ILO report on how to strengthen national occupational safety and health systems to build resilience, in order to face crises now and in the future.


Hello, and welcome to this edition of the ILO's Future of Work podcast.

I'm Sophy Fisher.

There hasn't been a time in living memory where there's been a

greater focus on safety and health.

COVID-19 has made us examine in forensic detail what we do

in our everyday lives, how we live, how we shop, who we meet.

Since most people spend a significant portion of their waking hours at

work, the issue of safety and health related to work has become crucial

to understanding both how the virus is spread and how we stop it.

It's entirely appropriate that this year, the ILO is marking world

day for safety and health at work, which is on 28th of April, with

a report on how to anticipate, prepare for, and respond to safety

and health crises like COVID-19.

We at the ILO are all still working from home because of COVID-19, but

via the miracle of the internet, we are continuing to work.

I'm delighted this morning to be joined by Manal Azzi, senior

specialist on occupational safety and health at the ILO, and one of

the coordinators of our report on safety and health at work this year.

Manal, hi, and welcome to the podcast.

-Hi, Sophy. Thanks so much for having us.

-How are you? How is working at home for you?

-That's a good question. It's been a struggle, I must say.

I guess like everyone else, I have to manage three very

young kids, full-time job from home and we don't have family

here or anyone around for help.

It's been quite a struggle, like everyone else.

-I think for all of us, same here.

I only have one teenager, but it's still a struggle.

I think for all of us at the ILO, we have had a personal experience

of the problems of remote working.

We've been in touch with the problems of the world's workers, perhaps in

a way that in some other issues we aren't, at least not so directly.

Tell me, you've been the coordinator of this report, what do you think

we've learned about occupational safety and health from COVID?

-First of all, that occupational safety and health is really

important and that we can't take things for granted.

We've learned on so many levels in our lives as people who work and as

people that are part of a community.

In terms of occupational safety and health, we've realized that

if we haven't invested earlier in the different infrastructures and

the different elements that we need when we face a crisis, it's

not during the crisis that you're going to start setting them up.

It's a little bit too late if we don't plan ahead.

That's what we've learned.

We've seen that countries that had planned ahead for global

health crisis, such as this one, we're able to act really quickly

and we're able to integrate protection of workers in their

broader crisis management approach.

-What sort of things do they have in place?

Naming no names particularly, but what measures or systems

do they have in place that really helped, do you think?

-You really have to start off at the national level by having regulations,

by having that regulatory framework that people can be guided by.

What am I supposed to do as an employer?

What's supposed to happen in this particular economic

activity or sector?

Do I have the right policy and strategy in a certain sector to

prevent accidents and diseases and to prevent, for example,

exposure and contagion in the case of this communicable disease.

Starting off with regulation, in countries who had regulation

that were adapted to biological hazards were able to react

immediately in giving guidance.

That would be the second step, making sure you've developed guidance.

We were a bit lucky because there were some of these different

viruses that didn't take a pandemic scope, but did affect regions and

countries in a devastating way.

There were these emergency guidance already in place for

some countries that were most affected, and others not.

-You are talking about things like SARS and MERS and stuff like that?


This is similar and not similar in many ways.

People who already had governments, who already had national regulations

in place on those issues, on what measures to be taken, what

personal protective equipment needed to be done, what distancing

needs to take place and all these thoughts that they've already

gone through, they've invested in research in this, was important.

Regulation was important, research and knowledge that was ready to

go when you are faced with a new virus was important, and how to

manage your workplace in that sense.

Having that management system for occupational safety and health

already set up for other risks and exposures at work helps, and you can

take that system and apply it to a communicable disease such as COVID.

Those were the countries that reacted quickly, and they had institutions.

They had tripartite committees made of workers, employers, governments

discussing already other issues.

If that committee is already set up, it can quickly discuss a

new issue and collaborate easier in an easier way, and then even

reach out to other departments and governments and players, key

stakeholders, to discuss and be ready as a unified group of world of

work actors, to be ready to discuss the national level such a crisis.

Being strong as that OSH system that we're trying to advocate for now,

help these countries have a name, have visibility, have guidance, have

research in place and have the tools to apply all of this to a new threat

and a new crisis such as COVID.

-That's interesting.

These countries, I think a lot of the countries we're talking

about here are in Asia because that's where SARS kicked off.

As a result of that, they set up tripartite systems which they

could then reactivate for COVID?


Some of them did, some of them already had it regardless of the

crisis, and it's not just-- there are other communicable diseases,

like Ebola that happened in Africa.

There are others that we've learned from that have an immediate

threat and an immediate threat to health care workers also

that needed to be protected.

Which brings me to where this threat lies was the strongest and it was

really among these healthcare workers that have to deal immediately with

cases that we know little about scientifically in the beginning,

and they were not protected, they didn't have the right tools.

Countries that already had a preventive system in place,

administrative also, system in place where the shifts were working

right, the physical barriers that they could just bring in and set

up were there, the equipment was there, countries obviously that are

a bit more developed economically and have realized the importance

of setting up your health services right, was able to protect their

health workers and provide a safer environment for patients.

We've seen that even developing countries suffer from that.

There's this tendency that we don't invest in public services,

we assume it's just going to happen and we assume that people who

work in this field have a vocation to do so and they should just

do it and hardly be paid for it.

I think another thing we've learned is it made governments realize

that this is where investment needs to happen because if we're

not alive and if we're all sick, we can't enjoy everything else a

government provides to its citizens.

If we don't collaborate internationally, something like

this so communicable across boundaries can take a toll on

everyone and on economy and on the future of everyone's lives.

-It's often been said about COVID, nobody is safe

until everybody is safe.

I think we can all appreciate that in principle that's the correct, but

strengthening systems, particularly in developing countries basically

means more money, more resources, and these are the countries that

even if they've had the experience of SARS and Ebola, a lot of

them don't have the resources, so who's going to pay for this?

-It takes on different levels, different measures

and, of course, it's gradual.

We don't expect a magic wand where people without the

economic resources or even sometimes the technical know-how.

A quick example, if you don't have trained physicians to

recognize different diseases or potential exposures at work,

they're not going to be able to diagnose an occupational disease.

If you don't even have that training available, the right

technical knowledge, you're also unable to manage situations

related to health as such.

Yes, there is a need for financial investments, but it's gradual.

The need for a financial investment comes when you set a policy

that actually calls for it.

Because the budget is there in most countries, it's where it goes,

and it's trying to make sure you advocate that this is a priority

and you don't wait for a crisis to happen, or for a catastrophe or

for an accident or a fire, such as the one in Beirut, for example, to

happen, and then you look back and think, "Oh, I needed a preventative

system in place before that."

Accidents are happening, global crises are happening, national

crises are happening all the time.

Investing is a choice because the budget sometimes exists,

it just goes somewhere else.

You need to inject the money where you need it the most to ensure a

safety net for your population.

We work like at the ILO, our constituents in different

countries, we work gradually.

We don't expect a magic wand.

Here we come to our international normative system that helps

governments update their policies and national laws gradually, and start

implementing gradually and feeding the necessary budget and intellectual

know-how during the process.

It doesn't happen overnight, but there needs to be a will.

Some things don't need too much resources.

They're just about being aware of little changes you

can do, raising awareness.


-Yes, because sometimes you have the resources, you give people

personal protective equipment, they don't wear them because

they're not trained on why it's necessary for them to wear them.

They're not motivated and there aren't enough rewards or enough

consequences that are explained, et cetera, or regular training

that happens in the right language, at the right time, et cetera.

There are so many levels of making this work.

It's not just about injecting money into it or not, but about building

that environment and culture where safety and health are important and

people prioritize investing in them.

-You talk to a lot of governments, workers, and employers

in the ILO member States.

Do you get the impression that the prioritization of this has changed?

Because in some ways, OSH in the past has been a bit of a poor relation.

It's always tomorrow's investment. Has that changed now, do you think?


I can confirm that the atmosphere is very different today.

Governments got scared, they were facing something

they couldn't control.

We've seen from the literature that workplaces are one of the biggest

hubs and cluster of transmission, because people continue to go to

work, people weren't protected and it was a hub for transmission, even

though we don't have the proper statistics to globally announce

different issues yet and they will come as we look into them in more

detail, but we've seen national statistics in different countries

that really shows a high percentage that happened in the workplace.

This scared governments and they needed to have the tracing capacity,

the infrastructure capacity, management system at the workplace.

They wanted to quickly learn.

We see it in global discussions, such as the question of whether

occupational safety and health should be a fundamental principle

right at work, and we've seen a resistance to that discussion earlier

and recently this year, in the ILO governing body, we saw a tremendous

amount of support coming into this needs to be a right at work.

This is not a question anymore.

We need to be investing in the safety and health of workers.

Because the problem is, when a crisis like this happens, you

tend to neglect the other chronic diseases that were already going on.

Governments were faced with decisions and trade-offs, where people had

to die so others can survive.

I think the effect of that will go a long way, if we keep the momentum,

because we know it's easy to go back to our old habits, and think if

we don't have an immediate threat, everything's fine, but unfortunately,

unfortunately, I think governments have learned and the tripartite

constituencies, social partners, have learned with difficulty and

through this terrible catastrophe that we're all living, that safety

and health of workers is important, if not the least, for the essential.

For the essential work that needed to happen during the crisis,

delivery of services, be it the healthcare sector, be it the

paramedics, people providing basic food, and for people to survive in

their homes during the lockdown.

We realize what's essential, we realize how this needs to happen,

and they need to be protected to actually deliver basic survival

needs for the rest of the community.

-Basically, we've been taking it for granted, haven't we?

I noticed that in what one of the slightly scary statistics in your

report is, up to 20 or 30% of cases, in some countries can be

attributed to workplace exposure.

Clearly, getting a handle on this, standards in the workplace

are absolutely crucial,



That's why so much work has been going on to really encourage

decisions at the workplace, to keep people from exposure to the extent

possible through different means and regulations, and this is where

we're seeing a lot of teleworking where possible, and other means.

-Do you think that the workplace as we used to know it has gone?

When we ultimately finally stop working from our kitchen tables

or wherever, the workplace we go back to will not be the same, or

will we just ease back into them?

-I wouldn't be able to predict, but there are several

things to consider here.

If we're talking about office work, that's one issue.

If we're talking about agriculture.

We were already in a state where everything was

moving forward differently.

This pandemic fast-tracked a lot of the changes that we

were already facing anyway.

It made it normalized the way the work was being conducted, especially

for those who can work from offices.

Yes, I think there will be a huge change in going back to a

full-time 100% office job when your work can be conducted from home.

Looking at research, we're facing different opinions around this and

different situations of people.

Some people are begging to go back to a place where they can consider a

workplace that's not confounded with other responsibilities they may have

at home for elderly, for children, and for the actual home management

that they need to be doing.

This multitasking is not healthy and it's not long-term, at the

same time, the flexibility to be available to use your personal

time differently and choose when your personal time happens

is interesting and is helpful.

I think it's a halfway between.

-I'm interested in office work because there the trade-off between

the financial component of safety and the health of the workers is

quite direct, because, for example, it's things like the size of the

office space that you rent for say, 10 workers, is it smaller?

Do you go down the route of hot-desking, which has been a

growing trend and very popular among some companies and government

offices, because you save money, things like sealed windows

with no natural ventilation.

Do you think people are going to be rethinking these?

For example, will we see hot-desking, will we see sealed

windows five years from now?

-I think it really depends on the nature of work and the nature

and size of the company and the activity that people do, and

the general demographic of the workers that work in this activity.

I think we've been trying out a lot of different workspace

situations, some have worked in some context, some have not.

I don't think we would be able to generalize a new

workspace for all kinds of work.

I think we're still trying these different situations out but I

doubt that we would be able to adopt such new workspaces for

all different activities at all.

Now, there are two things we need to be considering,

spacing out if anything.

Sharing is no longer really an option.

I think there's serious rethinking about how much sharing and

open space we were having just before the pandemic and how

much now we're talking about distancing, isolating, ventilating.

It really depends.

I think we need to strike a balance between understanding

communicable diseases at work and outside, and establishing a system.

Airports haven't been the same since bombings have happened.

I don't think workplaces will be the same after such a communicable

disease has hit us hard and killed a large number of the

population in this century.

I think many elements need to go into the thinking once we decide

on what workspace fits best for our demographic of workers, for

the type of work that's being done, and for the flexibility

that's expected from now on.

I think a high level of flexibility needs to go into how we propose jobs

in the present and the near future.

-Yes. I think one of those or one of the other scary things that has

come out through COVID is the new OSH or occupational safety and

health risks that have emerged through these working systems.

Chemical ones, partly related to cleaning, I guess.

Ergonomic, people not working in specially designed offices.

Of course, you've already touched on the psychosocial which I think

for many people is one of the most worrying things to emerge of all.

-I cannot stress enough, Sophy, how important that is.

Just by taking my daughter to school this morning, I'm going to

just mention something because it really bothered me this morning.

A mother walked up to me from a country not from Switzerland

and they're here as expats with her husband, she doesn't work.

She just told me that she's now been forced to move back

to her country because she's in a situation of domestic

violence and cannot get any help.

By being locked down with her partner, this has exacerbated the

situation for the past year and she's found no resources for help.

This is just one example from this morning.

We're in one of the most developed countries in the

world and nobody can help.

The changes that have happened, that people that used to travel, they used

to be absent 50%, 60% of the time.

They never had to face the different psychosocial environment that you

now face from working from home.

Just speaking to psychotherapists and psychologists around the world, the

level of mental illness, I think this is the current pandemic above all.

I don't know how we can best now protect people from further

damage, because, as we know, once you have mental breakdowns, it's

very difficult to go backwards.

That's also been the dilemma for countries to close

down, open down, go back.

People are dying from COVID, yes, but people are dying from other

diseases and other different kinds of diseases that have been neglected,

including the mental situation.

I think this is where worker managers, people in leadership

positions in all occupations should take this upon themselves

to make sure that the environment that the different workers

are living in are okay.

It's not that employers or organizations need to

do something themselves.

They can make sure that they have referral systems for these people.

That they have a list of contacts that these people can-- and they

understand the flexibility needed.

Where people aren't disconnecting when they're working from home,

you can't expect that and you need to understand that juggling

is okay for a month or two, but it's not long-lasting.

You're going to lose your assets and your worker in the

long time, once they have a nervous breakdown from all the

stress and all the development.

Psychosocial risks have taken on an importance globally.

In a sense, it's good because it's always been considered

secondary, and it's not.

If you read the literature, soft skills and compassion and

interpersonal skills have always been considered secondary,

but they're not secondary.

They're really the basis for people to continue to work, to continue

to respect each other, and to continue to produce and not just

be present rather than being absent from the type of job they're doing.

Yes, ergonomic risks, definitely.

We're seeing a rise in musculoskeletal diseases, eye

issues, lots of problems with people sitting at their desks all day and

not having that differentiation between a workplace and a home.

-Yes, it's 24/7.

I just want to take you back to the psychosocial issue for a

minute, because there has been so much discussion in this.

From what you say, it's the sort of pandemic from

the pandemic, potentially.

What I'd like to ask you is, is there a gendered component to this too?

-Definitely. We've seen historically that most services and most

of these occupations are highly dominated by women.

It's not that it's intentional that most violence is occurring

against women in these sectors, but this is how it's happened because

of the nature of such occupations that are about care and services.

What's shocking is the amount of violence we've seen

towards healthcare workers in healthcare settings, but also

outside of healthcare workers.

People have been attacked walking home because they didn't get the

treatment they needed for the patients or for family members, or

they weren't able to see members.

This is not speaking about people working in supermarkets and in

different grocery stores where people were looking for different

supply of different essentials and could not find them, or other

healthcare workers and even other workers that have asked people

to respect certain measures, "Please, respect the distance.

Please, put on your mask," and they've been met with a lot of

violence and sometimes physical violence and there's been a couple

of cases of even murder in different situations in some countries.

It's taken an extreme because people are under an

extreme amount of stress.

They're fighting for their lives or the lives of their loved ones

and everyone who's at the front line are those facing this violence

and then the psychosocial violence that comes with it, of course.

-We're coming to the end of our time, really.

Let me ask you to make a little look into the future.

How do you think workplaces 10 years from now will be different

from what we saw pre-COVID?

-I think you can't not learn from such a catastrophe.

This is a global crisis that from what we understand has not happened

in this scale for the past 100 years.

We're going to learn because policies have already changed.

Regulations have changed, trainings on different issues have changed.

It's now institutionalized.

The way we deal with problems like this, the way we go to work and what

we do will never be the same again.

In many aspects, we're going to learn, we're going to grow, we're

going to prioritize health, we're going to prioritize safety, and

we're going to understand that occupational health and public

health are overlapping, and what happens and what you do and how you

prevent something in the workplace will have consequences on the

community and the other way around.

There are less lines in the world today.

This is not speaking of technology, not speaking of the virtual world

we continue to live in, but we've been hit hard and we've been hit

hard where it hurts, and the world of work was already transforming

and now it will continue to transform, hopefully, in a even

more informed way and as we apply the new institutional, legal

and enforcement measures that are already in place, so this

is how long-term change happens.

It's by integrating it into your bread and butter at the national

level, by realizing that it-- so it's not just a memory, but it

becomes part of your law, part of your implementation plan and

part of your management system at the level of every enterprise.

-I guess that also means there's going to be quite a bit of work to

do to expand and update international labour standards and guidance to take

these lessons learned into account.


The ILO is a bit behind in the sense that we have never had a standard

that managing risks and biological hazards, and that's now being

discussed to possibly be placed on the agenda for future discussions

upon the request of governments and constituents and social partners.

We still have a long way to go to develop new standards, amend

the ones we have and improve in the way we manage and provide

long-term sustainable protections and preventative measures more.

-Yes. Hopefully that will be some positive legacy to come out

of all the suffering and the horrible things that have

happened in the last year or so.

-That's the only way to look forward to at least learn and

learn properly to be ready and to prevent catastrophes such

as this one in any way we can.

-Yes. Anticipate, prepare and respond, as you say in your report.

Manal, thank you so much for your time and your expertise

on this very important subject.

That was Manal Azzi, senior specialist in occupational

safety and health at the ILO. I'm Sophy Fisher.

I hope you will join us again soon for another edition of

the ILO Future of Work podcast.

Good bye.

Occupational safety and health and COVID-19: what lessons have we learned?