February 24, 2022

Guide for Healthcare OHS Programs Issued by WHO, ILO

Responding to the pressures of the COVID-19 pandemic, the World Health Organization (WHO) and the International Labor Organization (ILO) have jointly published a new guide for improved occupational health and safety (OHS) programs in the healthcare industry titled Caring for Those Who Care: Guide for the Development and Implementation of Occupational Health and Safety Programmes for Healthcare Workers. According to a joint WHO/ILO news release, the guide’s recommendations focus on managing sustainable OHS programs in healthcare that cover all occupational hazards and apply to all healthcare system levels—national, sub-national, and facility.

The executive summary document published as a companion to the guide lists infections, unsafe patient handling, hazardous chemicals, radiation, heat and noise, psychosocial hazards, violence and harassment, injuries, and inadequate water, sanitation, and hygiene as among the occupational hazards encountered by healthcare workers. Furthermore, the executive summary stresses that the guide’s recommendations apply to “all people engaged in work actions whose primary intent is to improve health,” from the level of national policy down to that of the community, as well as management and support workers such as cleaners, drivers, hospital administrators, district health managers, and social workers. The executive summary goes on to cover the major sections within the guide, which focus on defining the aims and principles of OHS programs, listing the key features of national and facility programs, and outlining the steps for preparing, developing, and implementing programs.

Leaders in both WHO and ILO hope that the new guide will help address long-standing OHS concerns in the healthcare industry that have been made more obvious throughout the pandemic. The WHO/ILO news release states that more than one third of health facilities lack point-of-care hygiene stations, while fewer than one country in six had a national policy for OHS in the healthcare sector before the pandemic.

“COVID-19 has exposed the cost of this systemic lack of safeguards for the health, safety, and well-being of health workers,” said James Campbell, the director of WHO’s Health Workforce Department. After noting that about 115,000 healthcare workers died from COVID-19 in the first 18 months of the pandemic, Campbell added that “sickness absence and exhaustion exacerbated preexisting shortages of health workers and undermined the capacities of health systems to respond to the increased demand for care and prevention during the crisis.”

“Health workers, like all other workers, should enjoy their right to decent work, safe and healthy working environments, and social protection for healthcare, sickness absence, and occupational diseases and injuries,” said Alette van Leur, director of the Sectoral Policies Department with ILO.

The Caring for Those Who Care guide and executive summary can both be downloaded as free PDFs from the WHO website.