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Game-changing occupational safety and health law needed now, says specialist


WITH Jamaicans now a second week into a phased return to the workplace after a two-month work-from-home order expired, one occupational safety and health (OSH) specialist says the time for a workplace safety game changer is now.

According to Dr Norbert Campbell, lecturer in the Department of Community Health and Psychiatry at The University of the West Indies (UWI), Mona, while the novel coronavirus is a biological hazard, there are also related occupational hazards.

Speaking at a recent forum put on by the Faculty of Science and Technology, Dr Campbell said the pandemic presents an opportunity to recognise the importance of occupational safety and health issues, arguing that individuals are not sufficiently aware of their significance.

Data from the International Labour Organization (ILO) said in 2019 that there were an estimated 2.3 million deaths per year due to occupational injuries and diseases worldwide. According to the ILO, there is severe under and non-reporting of these incidents by many developing countries. It is also estimated by the ILO that about four per cent of global gross domestic product is consumed by occupational injuries and diseases — estimated at over US$3 trillion in cost.

Addressing the issue of occupational injuries, Dr Campbell said “ergonomic problems have become an increasing one for health care workers” since the onset of COVID-19.

“Those persons who have to lift patients in awkward positions, that is a major hazard; and with shortage of staff due to exposure and illness among those persons, it compounds the problem. When you think of the psychosocial issues related to the COVID-19 experience — we talk about stigma, some persons are being abused because they have contracted the disease, some persons are in isolation, those who are working from home — so you find there are many issues,” he stressed.

For women, he said, the workload has increased.

“When we talk about female workers, they are the ones bearing the burden because they are now at home being caregivers and they are doing work — taking care of family and so on,” Dr Campbell said.

In the workspace, he said, “more and more workers are being exposed to chemicals now, in terms of non-traditional work situations. For example, the mixing of these disinfectants by auxiliary staff, and also the workers in offices are more exposed because of the frequency with which cleaning is indicated”.

All this, the occupational safety and health specialist said, is further compounded by the “challenges in establishing work-relatedness in [COVID-19] cases”.

“An occupational disease is work-related, and, in many cases, the employer cannot identify that this happened at the workplace,” he pointed out.

In the meantime, Dr Campbell gave credit to companies who have established OSH management systems, despite there being no law mandating them to do so.

“I submit that the companies who have these systems in place are the ones who are doing best in managing this experience. Although we do not have OSH legislation in Jamaica, there are many companies that are practising good methods to their own advantage,” he said.

At the same time, he said the Occupational Safety and Health Bill for Jamaica, which has been languishing for some time, must be made a reality.

“We have had the Occupational Safety and Health Bill in gestation for 25 years. It managed to go to Parliament in 2017. I have heard a report from the legislative committee that they are midway the legislation and so one wonders when we will have this legislation to work with. It is the basis for changing the game in occupational health and safety in Jamaica, and workers, employers and legislators need to get it done,” he said.

He is also imploring Jamaicans to wear the correct personal protective equipment (PPE) and in the way prescribed.

“One of the very important issue is the issue of the appropriateness and adequacy of the respiratory PPE gear for the airborne hazard. There is a lot of talk about the surgical masks… I find there is a lot of confusion about that… The N95 [mask] is a personal protective equipment, it protects the wearer. The surgical mask is really not a personal protective device, it provides some level of protection, but it is not classified as PPE,” Dr Campbell explained.

“I have seen persons buying N95 [masks] — it has two straps, they anchor one strap and they leave the other flying. It is more expensive. I went into a pharmacy and an individual purchased one and it cost over $700, and the person only put on one strap. Any tight-fitting gear is only as effective as how well it fits,” he said.

He further cautioned against the use of “other types of respirators”.

“We focus on N95 [masks] because that is the protective gear that is relevant. I have seen other persons using other types of respirators, and there are even some that they are using that are for organic vapours and gases. The mechanism of air purification is totally different, so it will not help you for COVID-19,” Dr Campbell explained.

“It is more expensive, persons are spending more money, and they are not being protected at all,” he added.

He also had some advice for health care workers.

“It is also important that training of respirator wearers be done [on] how you don and doff [the device].

“If you put it on properly and take it off badly, you expose yourself. You are only supposed to fit test persons who have been trained. Interestingly enough, in the United States the law requires that you be fit-tested once per year. There are many persons in our health care system that they were never fit-tested [before COVID-19],” Dr Campbell said.

The fit testing he said, is crucial.

“The truth is, when you look at respirator sizing, they really come in three sizes — small, medium, large — and different persons have different facial configurations. And what you need in a tight-fitting device is proper fit, and I am so happy this fit testing is happening now [in Jamaica since COVID-19], and I use this opportunity to say to all such workers that after COVID-19 you demand that the process is continued,” Dr Campbell stated.

“When you think of persons being fit-tested and start to wear respirators in a pandemic, it is better than not doing it, but that’s not the right time because when you put on a respirator first, it’s awkward, and people touch it frequently and so on, so you want to have it fit-tested early [so] people get accustomed to wearing it,” he added.

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