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COVID research maps workers in need of greater protection

Essential worker facing sexism and racism on the job in addition to other health and safety threats
Social inequities such as sexism and racism compound existing health and safety threats faced by essential workers and can no longer be ignored a new study concludes.

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

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

Precarious work and vulnerability

For the study a group of Canadian researchers completed a rapid scoping review of the literature on COVID-19 transmission risk to workers in essential industries. They selected and examined 30 high quality studies from peer-reviewed articles and other relevant reports published between March and September 2020. Along with addressing COVID-19 workplace health and safety issues the studies also included sociodemographic data and/or a literature review on precarious work and vulnerabilities.

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

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

Occupational and public health overlap

Researchers also analyzed the literature for intersections between occupational health and safety and public health. Their review validated how the pandemic deepened existing inequities for vulnerable workers. Researchers found the following:
  • COVID-19 infection and death rates increased with age and existing health problems but also with discrimination and structural inequities based on racism and sexism.
  • Racial and ethnic minority workers are concentrated in high-risk occupations which also correlates with lower socioeconomic conditions. 
  • Women are more prevalent among the precariously employed.

Employment is just one of the social determinants of health. Other factors such as gender, race/racism, education and literacy, and physical environment (e.g., 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 COVID symptoms which can increase the risk of transmission in the workplace.

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

Providing better protection

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

To address the many dimensions of vulnerability a variety of measures are needed to protect vulnerable workers. The study authors highlight 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 which address the needs of vulnerable populations and areas;
  • Improve collaboration among all levels of governments to address the needs of migrant workers as well as specific reforms to provide for paid sick leave and enhanced citizenship opportunities for immigrants;
  • Provide more protective workplace measures including adequate PPE, more accessible and workplace-based COVID testing and offer resources which meet the cultural and language needs of vulnerable workers.

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

Employers' legal obligations

Employers have the greatest legal responsibility for the protection of workers but Ontario’s Occupational Health and Safety Act (OHSA) also recognizes the rights, obligations and roles of others in pursuit of prevention, namely joint health and safety committee (JHSC) members and worker health and safety representatives. 
If your workplace employs 20 or more workers or a designated substance is onsite, the OHSA requires the establishment of a JHSC. In this case, employers must also "carry out" approved Certification training for at least two members of the JHSC, one worker representative and one management representative, including Certification Part ICertification Part II and Certification Refresher

Many workplaces elect to train all JHSC members to strengthen their in-house capacity to address the ongoing COVID-19 crisis and to ensure other workplace hazards aren’t overlooked. In smaller workplaces where worker health and safety representatives are mandated, some employers recognize the utility of this training and ensure they complete it too.

Meantime, WHSC-scheduled in-person training includes Working at Heights and Working at Heights Refresher training.

Don’t see what you need? Beyond the scheduled classes listed above, and where participant numbers warrant, we can work with you to coordinate almost any of our training courses, including our COVID awareness training, for all workers, workplace representatives and supervisors.

WHSC COVID-19 Resources
Contact a WHSC training services representative in your area.
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