Healthcare workers face a wide range of occupational health risks daily. Each day healthcare workers may come across biological, chemical, ergonomic and/or physical hazards. Precautions like PPE and individual administrative policies help keep workers safe, but they don’t eliminate the risks entirely.
The World Health Organization (WHO) recently published a key fact sheet about the occupational health of health workers. They also stressed the need to safeguard their health, safety, and well-being. “Globally, improving health, safety and well-being of health workers lowers the costs of occupational harm (estimated at up to 2% of health spending) and contributes to minimizing patient harm (estimated at up to 12% of health spending).” Protecting the health and safety of healthcare workers, improves job satisfaction, productivity and job retention. This is something so sorely needed as healthcare workers are feeling burnt out and leaving the profession in droves.
WHO’s occupational health findings include data on illnesses that occur as a result of working in healthcare. According to their data, approximately 54% of health workers in “low- and middle-income countries” have latent tuberculosis. Patients with latent TB infections are not contagious, however, 5 to 10% of infected persons will develop active TB at some point in their lives. For clinical nurses specifically in Africa, between 44% and 83% of nurses have chronic lower back pain. This is worrisome especially when compared to the 18% of office workers affected.
While these physical effects are concerning, WHO data also focused on some troubling mental health statistics. The mental health of health workers has been a hot topic throughout the pandemic. According to the data, 23% of front-line healthcare workers globally suffered with depression and anxiety during the pandemic. Additionally, 39% suffered with insomnia. WHO also noted that those in “medical professions are at higher risk of suicide in all parts of the world.”
It is clear that guidelines and policies are needed to prevent and protect healthcare workers from occupational hazards. According to WHO, there is a history of beneficial policy interventions to protect workers such as “introducing new and updating existing regulations”, “creating mechanisms and building capacities for management of occupational health”, and establishing collaboration between employers and workers to improve working conditions.
Unfortunately, only a little over 13 percent of WHO Member States have “in place policy instruments and national [programs]” to keep workers safe. Only 33% of all countries have national policies.
“In 2022, with resolution WHA74.14 on protecting, safeguarding and investing in the health and care workforce, the World Health Assembly called upon Member States ‘to take the necessary steps to safeguard and protect health and care workers at all levels’. The global patient safety action plan 2021–2030, adopted by the 74th World Health Assembly, includes action on health worker safety as priority for patient safety.
WHO’s work on protecting the health, safety and well-being of health workers includes:
- development of norms and standards for prevention of occupational risks in the health sector;
- advocacy and networking for strengthening the protection of health, safety and well-being of health workers; and
- supporting countries to develop and implement occupational health [programs] for health workers at the national, subnational and health facility levels.”