Safety and Health Concerns Affecting Health Workers Around the World

Safety and Health Concerns Affecting Health Workers Around the World

The World Health Organization provides examples of successful practices to keep these workers safe.

Healthcare workers are routinely exposed to more illnesses than workers in most other occupations. Of course, these workers take precautions, like using PPE, but that doesn’t completely eliminate the hazards.

In November, the World Health Organization (WHO) published key facts on the occupational health of healthcare workers. These findings include data on physical illnesses healthcare workers deal with as a result of the job.

WHO reported that tuberculosis affects a large portion of health workers in "low- and middle-income countries." Fifty-four percent of these workers have latent tuberculosis (LT). Though dormant, LT can lead to tuberculosis disease, though not in most cases, the CDC reports. Another health concern affecting health workers, specifically clinical nurses working in Africa, is chronic pain in the lower back. WHO noted that 44 to 83 percent of these workers experience this type of pain.

Physical health is not the only occupational concern affecting health workers. Their mental health is also impacted. This was especially true during the COVID-19 pandemic. Across the world at that time, almost one in four (23 percent) frontline healthcare workers experienced depression and anxiety. WHO also noted that “medical professions are at higher risk of suicide in all parts of the world.”

WHO data shows that although there are 195 members in the organization, only a little over 13 percent (26 total) have “in place policy instruments and national program[m]s” to keep these workers safe, and only 33 percent of all countries have measures like these. So what can people and countries do to protect the health and well-being of these essential workers?

History has shown that there are some successful “policy interventions” that pertain to “regulations, standards and codes of good practices,” health care management elements, “mechanisms” and “capabilities,” service coverage and “working conditions," according to WHO. For example, two of the actions include “creating mechanisms and building capacities for management of occupational health and safety in the healthcare sector at the national, sub-national and facility levels” and “establishing collaboration with organizations of employers and health workers for improving working conditions.” View a detailed list of policy actions here.

Earlier this year, WHO and the International Labor Organization published a 124-page downloadable guide on programs that can be used at various levels, including national and facility-specific, to protect the safety of health workers. The document is available for viewing and download on WHO’s website.

About the Author

Alex Saurman is a former Content Editor for Occupational Health & Safety,who has since joined OH&S’s client services team. She continues to work closely with OH&S’s editorial team and contributes to the magazine.

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