“A safe and healthy return to work during the COVID-19 pandemic”, the Guidance Note issued by the ILO, to help countries re-start work safely and effectively. (Image: ILO)

The International Labour Organisation (ILO) has issued two guidance documents with recommendations for countries on how best to create safe and effective return-to-work conditions, during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In a Guidance Note titled “A safe and healthy return to work during the COVID-19 pandemic”, the ILO advises that return to work policies “should be informed by a human-centred approach that puts rights and international labour standards at the heart of economic, social and environmental strategies and ensures that policy guidance is embedded in national occupational safety and health systems”.

The Guidance Note is accompanied by a 10-point, Practical Guidance action checklist for employers, workers and their representatives. The ILO explains the checklist is intended to compliment, and not replace, national occupational safety and health regulations and guidance, to help establish the practical details of a safe return to work.

The ILO underscores that social dialogue—the bringing together governments, workers’ and employers’ organizations—will be critical in creating the effective policies and trust needed for a safe return to work.

The Note draws on specialist ILO guidance documents and International Labour Standards, which provide a normative framework for creating a safe return to work. The document stresses that policy guidance should be embedded into national Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) systems, as these create the basis for safe workplace environments. The guidance, therefore, can contribute to a culture of continuous, country-level improvement, in administration, institutions, laws and regulations, labour inspections, information gathering, and other areas.

According to the ILO, workers must feel safe at their workplaces, both from risks directly related to COVID-19, and indirect risks, including psycho-social issues and ergonomic risks related to working in awkward positions or with poor facilities when working from home, the guidelines say. They should have the right to remove themselves from any situation “which they have reasonable justification to believe presents an imminent and serious danger to their life or health”, and “shall be protected from any undue consequences”.

Deborah Greenfield, ILO Deputy Director-General for Policy. (Image: ILO)

The document proposes that each specific work setting, job or group of jobs should be assessed before returning to work and that preventive measures should be implemented to ensure the safety and health of all workers according to a hierarchy of controls. For workers staying at home, the risk of infection in a work context can be eliminated.  For all workers returning to workplaces, priority should be given to options that substitute hazardous situations for less hazardous ones, such as organizing virtual instead of physical meetings. When this is not possible, the ILO advises that a mix of engineering and organizational control measures will usually be required to prevent contagion, and points out that the specific measures to implement are specific to each workplace, but may consist of installing physical barriers such as clear plastic sneeze guards, improving ventilation, or adopting flexible working hours, in addition to cleaning and hygiene practices.

The guidelines also recall that the use of appropriate personal protective equipment may be required to complement other measures, in particular for the most hazardous occupations, and that this equipment should be provided without cost to workers.

The needs of workers at higher risk of severe illness should be taken into account, including older workers; pregnant workers; those with pre-existing medical conditions; refugees and migrants; and those in the informal sector.

The ILO’s Deputy Director-General for Policy, Deborah Greenfield, observes that special attention will be needed to ensure that return to work policies do not create discrimination related to gender, health status, or other factors.

“Unsafe work practices anywhere are a threat to both health and sustainable business, everywhere. So, before returning to work, workers must be confident that they will not be exposed to undue risks,” Deborah Greenfield said. “And, to help enterprises and economies get going as soon as possible, workers will need to cooperate with these new measures.”

She added: “This means that social dialogue will be particularly important because it is the most effective way to feed information and views into policies and actions, thus creating the best chance for a swift and balanced recovery.”