28 April 2023

World Day for Safety and Health at Work

World Day for Safety and Health at Work: An important reminder about the importance of caring for the people who care after us

By Juliette Becuwe, Evoke Incisive Health

28 April marks World Day for Safety and Health at Work, an important date to remind us all of the importance of safety and health in the workplace. When the International Labour Organisation (ILO) instituted this day in 2022, its aim was to raise the profile of occupational safety and health issues at policy level, and to promote and create a safety and health culture that would contribute to the reduction of work-related diseases, injuries and deaths. 

Numbers alone tell us why this day is important: the latest report published by the ILO, “Enhancing social dialogue towards a culture of safety and health: What have we learned from the COVID-19 crisis?”, shows that some 2.9 million workers die each year as a result of occupational accidents and diseases. The human cost of poor occupational safety and health practices is significant, and its economic burden in 2022 was estimated to account for 5.4% of the annual global GDP.

When it comes to protecting healthcare professionals from work-related health hazards, there are a few questions that come to mind: What did we learn since the COVID-19 pandemic dramatically exposed the safety and health difficulties healthcare professionals are facing in the workplace? What concrete steps have been taken to improve the working conditions of healthcare professionals and reduced the risks they face? What can we collectively undertake to reach a more satisfactory position for the sustainability of our healthcare systems?

In Europe, other recent events have highlighted the importance of reconsidering the working conditions of healthcare professionals, from the lack of resources that healthcare systems are faced with, to the strikes led by healthcare professionals in several Member States beyond the pandemic. And there is growing research that shows the mental health impact that working conditions have on healthcare professionals. 

New and emerging occupational risks are also caused by social and organisational change or by technical innovations, such as, for instance, the lesser-known hazards linked to surgical smoke impacting healthcare professionals working in operating rooms.

Surgical smoke, or diathermy plume, has increasingly been associated with serious health problems. It is created by heat-producing equipment during surgeries and contains a variety of toxic substances affecting both patients and healthcare professionals, who find themselves at higher risk due to the long hours they spend in operating rooms. Not many people, let alone healthcare professionals, know about this issue and it is a further example of how the safety and health of healthcare professionals can be improved.

At the European level, the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work (EU-OSHA) collects and analyses work data, makes concrete recommendations and lists priorities, as for instance by identifying the need to improve the prevention of work-related diseases in the EU Strategic Framework on Health and Safety at Work 2021-2027. The fifth revision of the Carcinogens and Mutagens Directive and the Roadmap on Carcinogens also gives policymakers a chance to make positive impact in this area.

With this mind, all stakeholders have a role to play in improving the working conditions of healthcare professionals. Some, like governments and national authorities, can provide the legal and policy infrastructure necessary to protect workers. Others, like employers, employees, trade unions and industry, can make sure working environments are safe and healthy, as well as compliant with occupational legislation and policy. Collaboration is key to build stronger systems and is essential to build ownership and commitment, easing the way for their rapid and more effective implementation.

As we celebrate World Day for Safety and Health at Work, we are reminded of the need to address the visible and invisible elements that contribute to creating a safer and healthier workplace and even more so of the importance of caring for those who look after our health.

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