Did you know April 28 is World Day for Safety and Health at Work? The National Calendar Day website provides a bit of history:
World Day for Safety and Health at Work was organized by the International Labor Organization in 2003. It coincides with the April 28 International Commemoration Day for Dead and Injured Workers.
Each year, the United Nations uses it as a day to highlight the importance of occupational and safety measures around the globe. It is no surprise that in 2021 the focus is on the pandemic’s impact on the workplace.
Since emerging as a global crisis in early 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic has had profound impacts everywhere. The pandemic has touched nearly every aspect of the world of work, from the risk of transmission of the virus in workplaces, to occupational safety and health (OSH) risks that have emerged as a result of measures to mitigate the spread of the virus. Shifts to new forms of working arrangements, such as the widespread reliance on teleworking, have, for example, presented many opportunities for workers but also posed potential OSH risks, including psychosocial risks and violence in particular.
The Right to a Safe Workplace
Thankfully, most places I have ever worked have had measures in place to protect employees from workplace hazards. I believe workplace safety is the right of all workers, whether working in relatively safe office environments or in more dangerous environments such as factories or construction sites. It is a basic obligation of every organization to provide their employees with safe working environments in which their wellbeing is protected.
Although workplace safety mainly focuses on the physical hazards posed by machinery and other equipment, it is not limited to these factors. General health and wellbeing are additional components of safety. For example, employers risk the lives of their employees by neglecting to take steps to prevent disease transmission between coworkers and between coworkers and customers. This is true whether we are talking about the seasonal flu, strep throat, the common cold, or COVID-19.
The Cost of Indifference
I saw a news story last week about a worker in an Arkansas dispensary who says she was fired because she refused to take the COVID vaccine. Although the company rightly would not comment on this particular employee’s situation, they did confirm that the vaccine was required for everyone in the company. The cost of this woman’s indifference to the health and safety of her coworkers and customers cost her her job. If I had a business with employees, I might consider having the same policy. No single employee should be allowed to create an unsafe working environment. It doesn’t matter whether they want to drive a forklift like a maniac or want to ignore simple precautions to prevent the spread of a deadly disease.
I am baffled by people who don’t believe they have a responsibility as a coworker and citizen to take steps to protect those around them. Although I shouldn’t be baffled. Years ago, I worked with a man whom we all called “the carrier.” He always came to work sick – cold, flu, stomach virus. It didn’t matter to him that he was contaminating the air and every object he touched, potentially making his coworkers ill. His indifference created an unsafe and unhealthy workplace. Sadly, when it comes to COVID, indifference can lead to death.
Ethical employers create work environments that encourage employees to stay home when they are sick. They provide sick pay and don’t penalize employees who need to stay home. In addition, they realize that some diseases, such as influenza and COVID, may require the employee to miss more than a day or two; they don’t threaten the employee with job loss if she or he doesn’t return before it is safe to do so.
In today’s pandemic world, ethical employers recognize that the COVID vaccine could save their employee’s life, the lives of their parents or children, or the lives of their customers. The only way to truly prevent coronavirus transmission in the workplace is to ensure that all employees are vaccinated. Policies need to be developed to incentivize employees to get the vaccine. I'm concerned that policies leaving it up to employees to choose are policies that lead to a continued unsafe and unhealthy environment. I don't have good answers here, but as seen above, some organizations will choose to make the vaccine mandatory.
I read another article about a nursing home in which nearly all the residents had taken the COVID vaccine. You know who had not taken the vaccine? The workers! This indifference led to a widespread outbreak of COVID among employees and residents. Thankfully, because these elderly residents had had the vaccine, most either did not get COVID or only got a mild case. Yet some did die from COVID due to the negligence of the employer and employees.
Earlier in the year, trying to get an appointment for a COVID vaccine was difficult, but that is no longer the case. Any adult can now easily and quickly get the vaccine. On April 28, think about the safety and health of your coworkers and all the service workers who work so that you can get groceries or a hot meal or a delivery. They deserve to work in environments and deal with customers that don’t threaten their safety and health.