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.
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.