Policy Newsletter 2021 - International Update

Published July 2021

See the UK update here.

COVID

France vaccinations

France is tightening measures again, amid a fourth COVID wave. The infection rate has risen to 86 per 100,000 people – a 125% increase in one week. A group of health professionals in France have launched a petition asking the Government to make COVID vaccination obligatory for ‘any person who, in a public or private prevention or care establishment, or housing the elderly, carries out a professional activity exposing themselves or exposing the persons for whom he is responsible to the risk of contamination’. 1,256 health professionals have so far signed the petition. A controversial new anti-COVID Bill, including compulsory vaccination of all healthcare workers, is set to be passed by MPs in the coming days.

 

Europe

Europe has become the first region to reach a total of 50 million COVID cases since the pandemic began. According to Reuters, European countries are reporting a million new cases every eight days. Nearly 1.3m Europeans have died in the pandemic.

 

Mask wearing

Almost 6 out of 10 (57%) US adults believe face masks should be a requirement for workers at onsite locations, even if those workers are fully vaccinated, according to the results of a recent Harris Poll survey commissioned by the American Staffing Association. The online survey of 2,066 adults 18 and older was conducted between 10-14 June. Participants were asked for their opinions on worker behaviours and concerns as COVID cases decreased across the US. Nearly two-thirds said workers have a right to know if their colleagues have received the COVID vaccine, while, 60% said it’s no one’s business if they’ve had the vaccine.

 

India ‘excess deaths’ exceed four million – 10x higher than official toll

The COVID pandemic has resulted in excess deaths in India over four million, according to a new study, which gives the most comprehensive picture yet of the true toll of the pandemic in India

 

Excess deaths are a calculation of how many more people than usual are dying across a defined period of time. While not all excess deaths that occurred during the pandemic would be due to COVID, it is likely that a significant proportion were. So excess deaths are a measure of the overall impact of the pandemic. India has so far, officially recorded, more than 414,000 COVID deaths. The country is one of the few major economies without an estimate of excess deaths during the pandemic.

 

To draw together a more accurate picture than that reflected in official figures, researchers from the US-based Center for Global Development used three different data sources to estimate India's excess all-cause mortality during the pandemic until 21 June. These were data from the civil registration system that records births and deaths across seven states, blood tests showing the prevalence of the virus in India alongside global COVID fatality rates, and an economic survey of nearly 900,000 people done three times a year.

 

The researchers concluded that:

  • the first wave ‘was more lethal than is widely believed’ and that some 2 million people may have died in the first wave alone. But the second wave from March 2021 was more devastating
  • India was not an outlier when it came to COVID mortality, and hence did not support the claim that it had one of the world’s lowest deaths per capita.
  • the data sources taken together found that excess deaths were estimated to be in the range of 3.4 million to 4.7 million - about 10 times higher than India's official COVID death toll.

Workplace safety

The European Commission has said it will review and update EU rules on workplace safety in light of the COVID pandemic to better reflect that millions of people are now working from home. The Commission has said it will look at a range of requirements, from emergency exits to ventilation and the use of workstations and screens. It has also said it will also produce recommendations regarding mental health at work before the end of 2022.

 

The Commission's updates will not apply to the UK. However, it is likely that employers and UK health and safety professionals will review how other countries are approaching the challenge of more extensive home working. The question will be how the HSE views the shift towards home working and how its guidance will be updated to reflect this new model.

Wellbeing

Happiness

Finland has, for the fourth year in a row, been named the happiest country in the world by the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network, which publishes an annual report evaluating the happiness of people around the world.

 

The World Happiness Report uses data from interviews of more than 350,000 people in 95 countries, conducted by the polling company Gallup. The rankings are not based on factors like income or life expectancy, but on how people rate their own happiness on a 10-point scale. Questions included, “Did you smile or laugh a lot yesterday?” and “Were you treated with respect all day yesterday?”

 

The report came up with six categories to explain most of the difference in happiness between countries: gross domestic product per capita, social support, life expectancy, freedom to make life choices, generosity and perception of corruption levels.

 

Some results were surprising having found that parts of Eastern Europe ranked relatively low on the list, despite having relatively good income levels, while in South America, the reverse was true - happiness levels tended to be high, given relatively low-income levels. In Finland, a relatively egalitarian society, people tend not to be fixated on ‘keeping up with the Joneses’. Other possible contributors to Finns’ contentment included they enjoy a world-class public-school system, free college, universal healthcare, and affordable childcare.

 

All of the countries that ranked in the top 10 — including the four other Nordic countries — have different political philosophies than in the US, 14th on the list, behind Ireland and ahead of Canada. Lower levels of happiness in the US could, according to the report, be driven by social conflict, drug addiction, lack of access to health care and income inequality.

 

So not everybody is happy. According to Lord Richard Layard of the London School of Economics, it’s a win–win when companies take workplace mental health seriously and take actions to ensure employees feel supported and that their work is stimulating and rewarding. The happiest employees have a sense of belonging, a purpose, and social connections. Employers can foster this atmosphere by motivating and inspiring rather than intimidating their workers.

 

While many people salivate over the salaries of millionaires and billionaires, most Americans would be happiest earning around $100,000 a year. That is enough to provide a shield against poverty and makes it far easier to cover the costs of education and healthcare. Beyond the $100,000 level, happiness flattens significantly. But when wealthy people spend money on experiences and being charitable, they flood their brains with plenty of feel-good chemicals.

Middle East

UAE

Truck driver safety

According to a study by Continental, the premium German tyre company, 57% of truck drivers in the UAE claim to always or sometimes experience stress during their work and the majority finding that the stress of the job carries over into their personal lives. Around 24% claimed to find it difficult to switch off after completing their work, with 13% suffering sleep deprivation and 10% finding it made them more impatient.  The study also highlighted truck drivers’ concerns in relation to other drivers. When asked how other road users could adapt their driving style to facilitate truck drivers’ own driving experiences, 50% of truck drivers raised the issue of others maintaining a safe distance from trucks; 37% said they could better observe traffic regulations; and 33% suggested that they could be more considerate of truck drivers.

Emphasising the stressful nature of the job, and importance of supporting truck drivers, the study revealed that half of those questioned had been involved in accidents. When asked what one thing would most improve their ability to perform their job, 39% of respondents mentioned additional training, with 26% proposing more breaks and 17% decreasing the distances travelled. Reassuringly, 74% of drivers said that tyres are the most important aspect of truck safety.

India

Auto industry safety

A new report suggests that leading automakers in India do not have adequate policies in place to ensure the safety of workers engaged in manufacturing further down their supply chains. The report found that seven out of the 10 leading automakers did not have any policies to ensure occupational safety and health of workers in their supply chain, especially at tier-2 level and beyond. A tier-2 supplier manufactures components for a direct supplier of an automaker. The report also found that over the past four years, at least 2,600 workers have been injured and 70% of them lost their hands or fingers in the Gurugram-Manesar-Faridabad industrial belt alone. Most of these accidents involved a machine called a power press, which is used in making automotive parts.

 

BRICS Labour and Employment Ministers’ Declaration

India’s Union Minister for Labour and Employment, Shri Bhupender Yadav, chaired the BRICS Labour and Employment Ministers’ meeting on 15 July, which is currently under India’s Presidency. BRICS member countries are Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, whose Ministers participated in the meeting.

 

Discussion on four priority areas of cooperation took place namely: promoting social security agreements amongst BRICS nations; formalisation of labour markets; participation of women in the labour force; and gig and platform workers role in the labour market. The Ministerial Declaration recognised that the COVID pandemic had negatively impacted the efforts made to address unemployment, decent work deficits and inequality. It also illustrated the strong determination of BRICS Member countries to recover with stronger national economies, inclusive labour markets and social protection systems.

US

OSHA orders company to pay worker drawing attention to safety concerns

An investigation by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has found that CSX Transportation, based in Jacksonville, Florida, violated the Federal Railroad Safety Act and demonstrated a pattern of retaliation after firing a worker in December 2019 for reporting safety concerns. OSHA ordered the company to pay $71,976 in back wages, interest, and damages, and $150,000 in punitive damages. 

 

An OSHA spokesperson said “CSX Transportation’s actions are unacceptable…Federal law protects employees who report hazards in the nation’s transportation sector and OSHA is committed to enforcing these rights to keep workers safe.”

 

US Businesses fined after violating OSHA COVID Standards

During the pandemic, many employees have been working from home. Some companies, however, that nevertheless made their employees come in to work, have been found in violation of OSHA regulations. In some instances, OSHA fined those businesses after some employees died. Across the US, 484 businesses received OSHA violations related to COVID-19 totalling $6,334,827.

 

Heat Rules in Oregon are now’ the most protective’

Deadly record-high temperatures in the Pacific Northwest has led to Oregon OSHA adopting an emergency rule, on 8 July, that strengthens requirements for employers to protect workers from extreme heat in what advocates are calling ‘the nation’s most protective heat rule’. The temporary rule, which claims to expand access to shade, cool water, regular breaks and communication for concerns, is effective immediately and stays in place for 180 days.

The rule provisions, which reflect the best available science and input from labour and employer stakeholders, applies to every workplace and creates greater clarity for employers about the specific steps that need to be taken to protect workers from heat stress dangers at work. For employees, it further develops their existing rights to protection from heat hazards where they work.

 

MHSA holds National Stand Down for Safety Day

The Mine Safety and Health Administration hosted, on 20 July, a National Stand Down for Safety Day to help educate miners and employers in a bid to reduce injuries. This was prompted by MHSA alarm over by a recent surge in fatal and non-fatal work-related injuries involving powered haulage activity.

 

All levels of MSHA enforcement staff visited mines to meet with miners and operators. MSHA staff emphasised the need to comply with best safety practices for powered haulage, vehicle rollovers and miner training. The agency reported that, as of 15 July, nine fatalities and 185 non-fatal injuries related to powered haulage have occurred this year.

 

Mental illness an ‘unrecognised crisis’ among miners with black lung

The results of a recent study conducted by researchers from the University of Virginia show that coal miners with black lung disease commonly face various mental health issues, including thoughts of suicide. The researchers examined data from more than 2,800 coal miners who were evaluated for anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder through a voluntary survey at a black lung clinic in Jonesville, VA. The average age of the participants – an overwhelming majority of whom were white males – was 66.

 

More than 1 out of 3 participants reported symptoms consistent with a major depressive disorder (37.4%) or had clinically significant anxiety (38.9%). Additionally, 26.2% exhibited symptoms of PTSD and 11.4% had considered suicide in the past year. The percentage of suicidal thoughts among all men in Virginia is 2.9.

 

The researchers note that the percentage of mental illness ‘far exceeded those documented in coal mining populations internationally’. Drew Harris, the lead study author and pulmonary medicine expert at UVA Health, commented that the study highlights the ‘unrecognised crisis of mental illness in miners that warrants urgent attention, resources and expanded care’. He added that the percentage of ‘mental illness identified in this large population of U.S. coal miners is shocking. Improved screening and treatment of mental illness in this population is an urgent, unmet need that warrants urgent action’. Black lung is a deadly but preventable condition. According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) rates of black lung disease have more than doubled over the past 15 years. The condition is caused by exposure to respirable coal mine dust.

 

NIOSH has planned a series of free, confidential health screenings for current and former coal miners via the agency’s Coal Workers’ Health Surveillance Program. From 9-24 September, NIOSH mobile testing units are set to visit mining sites and public areas in southern West Virginia to screen for early detection of black lung.

 

Sanitation worker deaths

At least 12 sanitation workers suffered fatal injuries on the job during the first six months of 2021 – a 57% decrease from the same period in 2020, according to a recent analysis conducted by the Solid Waste Association of North America (SWANA).

 

SWANA found that all of the deaths reported up to 25 June occurred in the US. Additionally, at least 43 civilian fatalities associated with industry operations happened during the first six months of the year – 39 in the US and four in Canada. Although SWANA says this total is on par with that of previous years, it found that civilian deaths related to struck-by collection vehicle incidents have increased. The Association reports that 12 such fatalities have occurred during the first six months of 2021 compared with 13 for all of 2020.

 

‘Zero tolerance’ safety sweeps at largest construction sites in New York City

A recent run of construction worker deaths has prompted the New York City Department of Buildings (DOB) to begin conducting ‘zero-tolerance’ safety sweeps at thousands of the largest and most complex construction sites in the city. According to a press release from DOB, three workers were killed in separate incidents over a two-week period in late May 2021. Two of the workers died because of a fall. Enforcement action will be taken if DOB inspectors observe any safety violations, and worksites will be shut down if serious safety lapses are discovered. Violators could face fines of up to $25,000 per violation.

 

At each worksite, inspectors will:

  • Ensure permitted construction projects are in full compliance with required safety plans.
  • Confirm contractors and safety professionals are adhering to the city’s construction safety regulations.
  • Check that workers are properly using safety harnesses and fall arrest systems where required.
  • Distribute safety information on fall prevention. DOB will also mail the information to all permit holders performing roof work.

 

Construction workers at higher risk of COPD

According to the results of a recent study by researchers from The Center for Construction Research and Training (CPWR), Duke University and the University of Maryland, Workers in construction trades are at ‘significantly’ higher risk for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) than non-construction workers. Overall, 13.4% of the participants had COPD and more than two-thirds of the cases were classified as moderate to severe. Compared with non-construction workers, the participants had a 1.34 times greater risk of COPD and a 1.61 times higher risk of severe COPD. The trades with the highest level of risk were cement masons/ bricklayers (2.36 times) and roofers (2.22 times). Based on the findings, the researchers say additional preventive measures are needed to lower workplace exposures to vapours, gases, dusts and fumes to reduce the risk of COPD.