Research

Pandemic sees rise in support for Working from home; Compressed weeks, and Job sharing

Research commissioned by the FWC as it considers inserting a WFH clause in the clerical award has found that support among workers for performing their duties from home, compressing their hours and job sharing has increased dramatically during COVID-19.

Sydney University's Marian Baird and Daniel Dinale found that 58 per cent of workers now want to work from home occasionally in the future – up from 35 per cent pre-pandemic – with two days the preferred option, followed by one day. With a strong preference for a mix of both in-person time and working from home, they say there may be the need for a right to “not work from home”.

There is also a huge worker increase in support for compressed working weeks (CWW), up from 28 per cent pre-pandemic to 60 per cent wanting to access it after COVID-19. There is also an increase in support for job sharing: from 20 per cent to 41 per cent.

The authors warn that the effects of working from home on women need to carefully considered, due to the potential for a “gendered take up with more men not working from home, and increased potential to see further gendering of flexibility use and the division of tasks at home”.

Baird and Dinale recommend “further and very targeted research on preferences amongst workers, disaggregated by sex, age, occupation and industry would be ideal to reliably understand Australian worker and employer preferences for flexible work arrangements post-COVID-19”. 
Read more: Professor Marian Baird AO and Daniel Dinale, Research report: Preferences for flexible working arrangements: before, during and after COVID-19, A report to the Fair Work Commission,  November 2020 [pdf]  Source: Workplace Express

COVID: adequacy of controls and PPE linked to workers' mental health

A study conducted at the beginning of the COVID-19 emergency finds workers who felt safe at their physical worksites had better mental health than workers who felt workplace COVID-19 safety practices were inadequate.

The new Institute for Work & Health (IWH) study of Canadian workers conducted in the (northern) spring of 2020 found that adequate protections such as personal protective equipment (PPE) and workplace infection control protocols (ICP) are linked to the mental health of workers.

The study, conducted jointly with the Occupational Health Clinics for Ontario Workers (OHCOW), found symptoms of anxiety and depression were highest among people who continued to go to work during the lockdown but felt none of their needed PPE and ICP protections were in place. In contrast, anxiety and depression symptoms were least prevalent among people who physically went to work but felt all the needed measures and PPE were available.

Also, workers who felt fully protected at their worksites had similar or even slightly better mental health compared to people who worked from home. Likewise, people who felt entirely unprotected at work had even poorer mental health than people who had lost their jobs since the start of the pandemic.

The study, accepted for publication in the Annals of Work Exposures and Health, was based on a survey developed by OHCOW, IWH and an ad-hoc pandemic survey group. The analysis compared anxiety and depression symptoms across three groups of workers. These were: people who worked remotely (42 per cent of the sample), people who were at work at their workplace (51 per cent of the sample) and people who had lost their job since the onset of the pandemic (seven per cent). 
Read more: Adequacy of COVID infection control and PPE linked to workers’ mental health: study
Institute for Work and Health newsletter

COVID-19 in Cold Environments: risks in meat processing plants

A team of public health experts led by Dr. David Nabarro, co-director of the Institute for Global Health Innovation, Imperial College London and Strategic Director 4SD Switzerland, has produced a working paper for the global union IUF on the factors which make cold food processing facilities high risk environments for the spread of COVID-19.

The paper recommends essential and practical steps employers and regulatory agencies should take to mitigate against the spread of the disease in meat and other cold food processing environments. Key findings and recommendations include:

  • The COVID-19 pandemic has underscored the profound societal inequality within the meat industry.
  • Employment conditions which incentivize reporting systems and provide financial support to workers when sick or isolating are critical factors in the successful fight against the disease.
  • Local health authorities, businesses and trade unions must work together. Public health and occupational health and safety are interconnected.
  • Temperature, humidity and poor ventilation all play a role in the spread of the disease.
  • Crowded work places, the speed of production, and aerosols combining with dust, feathers and animal waste, are all factors which encourage transmission of the coronavirus.
  • The implementation, in conjunction with workplace health and safety representatives, of standard OSH processes including risk assessments can have a major impact in reducing the spread of infection.

Welcoming the report, IUF Assistant General Secretary James Ritchie said: “A healthy and safe workplace established through the elimination and control of hazards, thorough testing and contact tracing systems enacted by appropriately funded public health authorities, and adequate paid sick leave for workers who are sick or must isolate, are the essential components of a strategy to keep essential food workers safe and to fight the spread of the coronavirus. There is no excuse to delay implementation.” Source: IUF news 
Access the paper "COVID in cold environments: risks in meat processing plants" in these languages: English, French, German, Portuguese and Spanish.

Cleaning chemicals risks can increase during COVID

In a review of 39 studies, researchers from the UK's National Heart and Lung Institute have found a 50 per cent increased risk of asthma, and 43 per cent increased risk of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease among cleaners. They say these findings are particularly relevant under the current COVID-19 pandemic, with the use of and exposure to cleaning chemicals increasing globally through infection controls. "We recommend adding to pandemic guidance documents information on cleaning-related respiratory health effects and on safe use of cleaning products to prevent the associated public health burden."

According to the researchers, their findings appear to support the "still debated" hypothesis that cleaning-related airway obstructions are caused by irritation rather than immuno-related mechanisms. "Also, our results suggest that if exposure at work to noxious cleaning agents persists a reversible airway obstruction could become irreversible" they add.

The findings have important public health implications as there is a growing "epidemic" of respiratory symptoms among occupational cleaners worldwide, the researchers say. "Preventive measures to avoid, or at least reduce exposure to cleaning agents at [the] workplace should be implemented, and respiratory health surveillance should be strengthened among this category of workers in order to detect early signs of respiratory health effects." 
Read more: Olia Archangelidi, et al, Cleaning products and respiratory health outcomes in occupational cleaners: a systematic review and meta-analysis. [Abstact], Occupational and Environmental Medicine, online first November 2020, doi: 10.1136/oemed-2020-106776. Source: OHS Alert

Increased risk of neurological disease in miners 

A study of more than a million workers has identified an increased risk of neurological disease in those from a major sector. Researchers from Canada's Occupational Cancer Research Centre say their findings could support a review of workers' compensation claims for neurodegenerative conditions among workers in mining occupations and related industries.

The researchers analysed workers' comp data and the healthcare usage records of 1.1 million male workers from 1999 and 2016, and found elevated rates of motor neuron disease, Alzheimer's disease and Parkinson's disease among miners compared to non-mine workers. Those affected worked in metal mines like gold, uranium, nickel, copper and zinc mines, and in roles involving rock and soil drilling work.

They say established at-risk occupation groups include those working around electromagnetic radiation, pesticides and heavy metals, like lead in materials, fumes, dust or liquid.  Exposures to nickel, aluminium "McIntyre Powder" and diesel engine exhaust in mines could be the source of the elevated risk of neurodegenerative conditions shown in their results. "Diesel engine emissions are an important component of total outdoor fine particles and have been a common exposure at Ontario underground metal mines since the 1960s," they say. 
Read more: Xiaoke Zeng, et al, Neurodegenerative diseases among miners in Ontario, Canada, using a linked cohort. [Abstract], Occupational and Environmental Medicine, online first November 2020, doi: 10.1136/oemed-2020-106958. Source: OHS Alert

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