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Social inequalities such as sexism and racism exacerbate existing threats to health and safety faced by essential workers and can no longer be ignored, a new study finds.

Research conducted during the first wave of the pandemic offers insight into how workplaces have coped with the challenges of COVID-19. With the pandemic has prolonged by unvaccinated and emerging COVID variants and inadequate controls at some sites, unfortunately the challenge remains. As such, this research evidence also has the potential to inform areas that need it most workplace policies and interventions.

Early research documented the excessive burden on racialized, low-income workers who had higher rates of COVID-19 infection. Many now want this research implemented to better protect vulnerable workers now and in a post-pandemic world.

Precarious work and vulnerability

For the to study a group of canadian researchers completed a rapid literature review on the risk of transmission of COVID-19 to workers in essential industries. They selected and reviewed 30 quality studies from peer-reviewed articles and other relevant reports published between March and September 2020. In addition to addressing occupational health and safety issues related to COVID-19, the studies also included socio-demographic data and / or a review of the literature on the precarious work and vulnerabilities.

They defined precariousness as: “a set of accumulated adversities (eg type of employment contract, working hours, employment relationship, low income, low access to training and career opportunities and migration status). For example, these workers are more likely to be employed on a temporary, part-time or on-call basis or as part of temporary work.

The researchers mapped the studies by design and approach as well as by profession, definition of vulnerability / precariousness and by intervention recommendations to: identify the professions most vulnerable to infection and transmission of COVID-19; examine how precarious employment threatens the health and safety of workers; explore conditions that might prevent transmission in precarious work environments.

Overlap of occupational and public health

The researchers also analyzed the literature for the intersections between occupational health and safety and public health. Their review validated how the pandemic exacerbated existing inequalities for vulnerable workers. The researchers found the following:

  • COVID-19 infection and death rates have increased with age and existing health problems, but also with discrimination and structural inequalities based on racism and sexism.
  • Racial and ethnic minority workers are concentrated in high risk occupations which is also correlated with weaker socio-economic conditions.
  • Women are more prevalent among precarious people.

Employment is only one of the social determinants of health. Other factors such as gender, race / racism, education and literacy, and physical environment (eg, housing) can also significantly influence health.

For example, migrant workers and those employed through temporary agencies may have poor language skills and little knowledge of health and safety rights making it difficult for them to ask for better protections. Without permanent citizenship and fearing deportation, some may not report symptoms of COVID, which can increase the risk of transmission in the workplace.

Inadequate housing increases the risk transmission of the virus for migrant farm workers living in cramped dormitories, but low wages are often underhoused and have to share space with family members. The mental health of vulnerable workers further suffers from anxiety, fear and guilt over the risk of exposing family members to COVID infection.

Provide better protection

On key issues related to physical proximity, access to personal protective equipment, and information and training on infection prevention and control, research reveals that workplaces were poorly prepared and vulnerable workers were poorly protected during the first wave of the pandemic.

To address the many dimensions of vulnerability, various measures are needed to protect vulnerable workers. The authors of the study stress the need to:

  • Use research evidence to better understand the roots of vulnerability and integrate health, safety and public health data to develop targeted and protective policies and measures that meet the needs of vulnerable populations and areas;
  • Improve collaboration between all levels of government to meet the needs of migrant workers as well as specific reforms to paid sick leave and enhanced citizenship opportunities for immigrants;
  • Provide more protective measures in the workplace, including adequate PPE, more accessible and workplace-based COVID testing and provide resources that meet cultural and linguistic needs vulnerable workers.

Vulnerable workers were poorly protected against health and safety threats before the pandemic, making the need for action all the more urgent, say the study’s authors: “… we need to think about these issues. beyond the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, while the same conditions of precariousness and vulnerability persist, and the issue of equal access to health care and protection against occupational hazards must be addressed again and again.

Legal obligations of employers

Employers have the greatest legal responsibility for protecting workers, but Ontario Occupational Health and Safety Act (LSST) also recognizes the rights, obligations and roles of others in the pursuit of prevention, including members of the Joint Health and Safety Committee (JHSC) and worker health and safety representatives.

If your workplace employs 20 or more workers or a controlled substance is on site, the LSST requires the creation of a CMSS. In this case, employers must also ‘complete’ approved certification training for at least two members of the CMSS, a worker representative and a management representative, including Part I certification, Part II certification and Certification update.

Many workplaces choose to train all members of the CMSS to strengthen their internal capacity to deal with the current COVID-19 crisis and to ensure that other workplace hazards are not overlooked. In small workplaces where workers’ health and safety representatives are appointed, some employers recognize the usefulness of this training and ensure that it is followed as well.

Meanwhile, the in-person training provided by the WHSC includes refresher training on working at heights and working at heights.

Can’t see what you need? Beyond the scheduled courses listed above, and when the number of participants warrants it, we can work with you to coordinate almost all of our training courses, including our COVID awareness training, for all workers, representatives of the workplace and supervisors.

COVID-19 CSST resources
Contact a WHSC Training Services representative in your area.
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