Exploring the Future of Worker Health and Safety in the Post-Pandemic WorldPosted on by
COVID-19 has had a profound effect on work. The short-term consequences of the pandemic, including new safety requirements at work, mandatory remote work arrangements, reduced working hours, and even unplanned furloughs or lost jobs, were unexpected and severe for many workers around the world [1-3]. Though the economy is now showing signs of recovery, experts around the world anticipate COVID-19 will have lasting impacts on the future of work [2, 4-6].
What implications might this have for the future of occupational safety and health (OSH)? The NIOSH Office of Research Integration designed the 2021 Expanding Research Partnerships Webinar Series to explore this question further. The series, titled Exploring the Future of Worker Health and Safety in the Post-Pandemic World, was comprised of three webinars and featured perspectives on the future of worker safety, health, and well-being from organized labor, employer groups, and OSH professional associations. Key points from each webinar are summarized below.
The Labor Perspective
The first webinar of the series was held March 10, 2021. The featured speakers were affiliated with labor groups representing workers in education, government, and healthcare (American Federation of Teachers [AFT] and Service Employees International Union [SEIU]); manufacturing, transportation, and warehousing (International Brotherhood of Teamsters [IBT]); and construction (North America’s Build Trades Union [NABTU]). The speakers noted the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in some safety and health improvements for workers, such as the addition of portable handwashing stations on construction sites and the development of flame-retardant facial coverings for oil and gas workers. The list of known risks and hazards for workers in these industries that have persisted during the pandemic and will likely continue post-pandemic, however, is far longer. Examples include nonstandard work arrangements; work-related violence and bullying; increased job pressures and workloads; the use of monitoring technologies; poor indoor air quality and inadequate ventilation systems; manmade natural disasters; and limited regulations and safety protocols, especially for contract workers. Occupational stress, mental health, fatigue, and musculoskeletal disorders will remain health outcomes of interest for workers across these diverse industries. Conducting comprehensive health and safety assessments; improving safety education, training, and communication; and engaging in research related to stress and infectious disease are among the top OSH priorities for the represented labor groups.
There was consensus among the speakers that working conditions are most improved in all industries when frontline workers, managers, and union representatives are respected as partners and invited to share their creativity in OSH discussions. The speakers also agreed that increasing research partnerships and collaborations is imperative to improving health and safety outcomes in the workplace. The represented labor groups have partnered with NIOSH in the past and welcome the opportunity to explore novel approaches to support and educate employees in their respective industries. The pandemic highlighted the need for the creation of additional industry-based centers for research, translation, and training—in particular for the healthcare industry—to leverage partner knowledge, experience, and resources to advance worker safety, health, and wellbeing.
The Employer Perspective
The second webinar of the series, held June 09, 2021, featured perspectives from employer groups in agriculture (Agriculture Safety and Health Council of America, AgReserves, Inc.), oil and gas extraction (Oil States Energy Services), manufacturing (DuPont), and transportation (JetCo). These sectors found themselves focused on the development of creative solutions to keep essential workers safe during the pandemic. For many, technology has played a key role in addressing challenges associated with data management, remote work, training and education, company culture and employee engagement, travel bans and limitations, and facility ventilation and sanitation. In many ways, the COVID-19 pandemic has broadened the perspectives of these industries to move beyond traditional workplace risk and safety topics. Worker health and well-being are now prioritized as major outcomes of interest as well. Issues associated with work-life fit are of particular interest. Leaders in these industries are also maintaining a keener focus on plausible future challenges and putting more effort into preparing for possible major events, such as another pandemic, that could significantly alter industry norms and practices. It is expected that technology will continue to play a critical role in strategic planning and future successes.
The presenters recognized the need for informed resources during the pandemic, such as those provided by NIOSH. One shared concern is how to best protect workers now that home has become a viable worksite across many industries. Worker privacy with respect to COVID-19 vaccine status, test results, and contact tracing is another concern that seems to transcend industries. All speakers also touched on mental health as a key health outcome for all workers now and into the future. This includes the importance of recognizing that the pandemic has affected and will continue to affect individual workers differently, and there will not be a one-size-fits-all solution for offering support.
The OSH Professional Perspective
In the third and final webinar of the series, held September 8, 2021, leaders from major OSH professional societies shared their thoughts on the future of worker safety and health. The featured speakers represented the views of the American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine (ACOEM), the Society for Occupational Health Psychology (SOHP), the American Society of Safety Professionals (ASSP), and the American Industrial Hygiene Association. The speakers noted the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the critical need for OSH professionals who possess a mix of complementary specializations. Occupational medicine physicians, for example, have played a key role in developing creative solutions to keep all workers healthy during the pandemic so they could continue to perform their essential functions for society, from healthcare workers and first responders to workers in agribusiness, food processing, grocery, transportation, energy, education, manufacturing, and retail. As a result, it is anticipated that there will be an increase in occupational medicine residency training positions, with a particular focus on developing telemedicine capacity. The COVID-19 pandemic also increased awareness of the importance of protecting and promoting workers’ mental health and psychological well-being, spotlighting the role of occupational health psychology in OSH. Research that further explores the health and well-being effects resulting from the complex interaction of psychological, social, and environmental factors of work for a variety of worker populations should begin now and continue beyond the end of the pandemic. Looking forward to the future, occupational safety professionals and industrial hygienists plan to remain focused on disseminating health and safety research results, developing standards and risk assessment tools to aid with future pandemics, and enhancing formal and informal OSH training and education opportunities.
To access the full 2021 webinar recordings or learn more about the upcoming 2022 Expanding Research Partnerships webinar series, please visit the Expanding Research Partnerships webpage.
Before you navigate away from this page, we are interested in hearing from you! How do you envision worker safety and health in the post-pandemic world? What do you foresee as the future for OSH as we adjust to a “new normal” with respect to the ways we live and work? Please leave your thoughts in the comments below.
Sarah A. Felknor, MS, DrPH, is Associate Director for Research Integration at NIOSH.
Jessica M.K. Streit, MS, PhD, CHES® is Deputy Director of the Office of Research Integration at NIOSH.
Nicole T. Edwards, MS, is a Program Specialist in the Office of Research Integration at NIOSH.
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