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WHO Return to work publication flawed

The World Health Organisation (WHO) this week issued return-to-work guidance which, while of interest, has some serious gaps and questionable recommendations, and which could undermine existing standards.  

According to Professor Rory O'Neill, editor of the UK's TUC Hazards magazine, the flaws in the new guide, ‘Considerations for public health and social measures in the workplace in the context of COVID-19’ include but are not limited to:

  • recommending ‘at least one metre’ physical distancing, which is not sufficient, and based on a questionable assessment of aerosol risks in many workplaces, and is less than recommended by many national authorities (In Australia the recommendation is 'at least 1.5m');
  • referring to the need for ‘medical masks’ for high risk work – this is vague and potentially dangerous. Specified fluid repellent, high performance masks are required to minimise the risks in high risk work, and many medical/surgical masks do not meet this requirement;
  • referring to ‘disposable’ and ‘heavy duty’ gowns and gloves, but not to the crucial fluid repellence, cover area or quality assurance;
  • saying nothing on right to refuse work that presents a serious and imminent risk to health (a right included in many national laws and in the relevant ILO Conventions);
  • saying nothing on protection from victimisation for raising safety concerns (again, a right in ILO Conventions);
  • While acknowledging they may be at increased risk, it says little or nothing on protection for vulnerable workers (other than recommending that they not be assigned to high risk jobs) – and fails to assert the need for a right to remain off work if at risk, or when living with or caring for vulnerable individuals;
  • saying nothing on testing to identify pre-symptomatic/ asymptomatic workers;
  • saying nothing on the adequacy of risk assessments and little of substance on worker involvement in their preparation and approval, prior to return to work; and
  • saying little or nothing on the employer’s role in reporting, recording, recognising and compensating work-related cases of coronavirus related infections, and related mental health and other problems.

The document was prepared without the involvement of unions, despite the preamble identifying unions as a part of the target audience and unions expressing concern about the development of guidance without union participation. (Thanks to Professor Rory O'Neill)

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